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Just hours after France named Saint Laurent as its submission for consideration in this season’s best foreign-language film Oscar race, Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, whose Sony Pictures Classics will distribute that film in the U.S., were presented with France’s highest military and civilian honor, the insignia of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, at a ceremony at the French Consulate in New York.
Saint Laurent is only the latest in a group of of roughly 90 French films distributed in the U.S. by Barker and Bernard’s various ventures over the past 30-plus years — at United Artists (1980-1983), Orion Classics (1983-1991) and Sony Classics (1992-) — and, come January, could join many of them in the elite club of Oscar nominees.
Before presenting Barker and Bernard with their medals, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius praised the duo for their “unique place in the realm of French cinema, distributing the largest number of French films in America and Europe.” He added, “Without your dedication and passion, French cinema would not have reached the American audiences that it has.”
The only other distributor of art house films who has ever received this honor is Harvey Weinstein, who was presented it in 2012.
Among the French films that Barker and Bernard have helped to bring to American audiences are Francois Truffaut‘s The Last Metro (1981), Jean-Jacques Beineix‘s Diva (1981), Eric Rohmer‘s Pauline at the Beach (1983), Claude Berri‘s Jean de Florette (1986), Louis Malle‘s Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987), Wim Wenders‘ Wings of Desire (1988), Claire Denis‘ Chocolat (1988), Bertrand Blier‘s Too Beautiful for You (1989), Agnieszka Holland‘s Europa, Europa (1991), Regis Wargnier‘s Indochine (1992), Sylvain Chomet‘s The Triplets of Belleville (2003), Michael Haneke‘s Cache (2005), Laurent Cantet‘s The Class (2008), Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009), Jacques Audiard‘s A Prophet (2009), Haneke’s Amour (2012), Audiard’s Rust and Bone (2012) and Asghar Farhadi‘s The Past (2013).
“This is pretty awesome,” Bernard told THR at the ceremony, cracking, “I get into French movies for free now!” (Bernard also shared that the ceremony took place in a room that was the site of a similar gathering that he snuck into 35 years ago.) Barker noted that he had planned to include in his speech a list of all of the French films with which he and Bernard had been involved over the years, but when it was prepared for him and he saw it he realized that it would take far too long. (He ended up improvising a moving speech in which he said that the “humanity” of French films and filmmakers is what has always drawn him to them.)
A sizable French contingent was in attendance, including French actors Charlotte Gainsbourg and Yvan Attal; French producer and sales agent Alain Vannier, head of Orly Films (who sold Barker and Bernard The Last Metro all those years ago); and French-American producer Christine Vachon, whose Still Alice was just acquired by SPC. Also present were director Bennett Miller, for whom SPC distributed Capote (2005) and is distributing Foxcatcher; Sony Pictures chairman and CEO Michael Lynton; SPC’s co-founder and co-president Marcie Bloom; SPC’s executive vp acquisitions and production Dylan Leiner; former Focus Features chief James Schamus; Telluride Film Festival co-director Julie Huntsinger; former New York Film Festival director Richard Pena; Film Society of Lincoln Center secretary Wendy Keys; producer Elizabeth Karlsen; Time magazine’s Richard Corliss; RogerEbert.com’s Chaz Ebert; Columbia University’s Annette Insdorf; and Barker’s daughter Kate Barker-Froyland, whose feature directorial debut, Song One, will be distributed by The Film Arcade and Cinedigm later this year.
A videotape featuring remarks from notables who could not make it to the gathering — among them Haneke, Cyrano star Gerard Depardieu, I’ve Loved You So Long star Kristin Scott Thomas, Rust and Bone star Marion Cotillard and Malle’s widow Candice Bergen — was played before the presentation began. As part of it Woody Allen, whose many SPC-distributed films include the French-set Midnight in Paris (2011), said, “I always felt there was something Gallic about those two gentlemen,” adding, to hearty laughter, “Having worked with Sony Classics for years, I can say there’s a great French feeling to the philosophy of the company. It runs on the motto of liberty, equality, fraternity — and frugality.”
Mamadou Diouf, Leitner Family Professor of African Studies and the director of Columbia University’s Institute for African Studies, also was honored at the event.
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