France's Rule Change Opens Oscar Chances for Roman Polanski's 'An Officer and a Spy'

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Roman Polanski

Mati Diop's 'Atlantics' and Ladj Ly's 'Les Miserables,' both Cannes favorites, could also benefit from changes allowing French films to qualify for Oscar consideration after a limited theatrical run.

When France announced it will allow early qualifying theatrical runs for films to be considered for the best international feature Oscar, it may have opened the door for Roman Polanski to return to the Oscars with his upcoming An Officer and a Spy.

His retelling of the Dreyfus Affair, tipped to premiere at Venice, is set for a Nov. 13 release in France. In past years, that would have been too late for consideration as France's foreign-language Oscar contender, but with the new rules, announced Wednesday, a short run would qualify it, giving the film a chance between the festival and the Sept. 30 cut off date.

Previously, French rules have required that a film get its full theatrical release in France before Sept. 30. In practice, this has written off fall and winters films, a season when some of the country's most acclaimed films get their local bows.

Aligning more closely with American rules, France's National Cinema Center (CNC) will now allow films to have seven-day theatrical qualifying runs ahead of their official release in order to be in consideration for the best foreign-language submission.

In addition to opening an Oscar opportunity for Polanski, the change could help the award chances of two buzz-worthy films out of Cannes from first-time directors: Ladj Ly's Les Miserables and Mati Diop's Atlantics.

Ly's Jury Prize winner, a gritty take on urban poverty in the Paris suburbs, is set for a Nov. 20 release in France. Amazon snapped up domestic rights to the drama for $1.5 million and is planning an awards season campaign in the U.S.

Netflix grabbed the rights to Diop's Grand Prize winner, which is set for an Oct. 2 release by distributor Ad Vitam in France, a date that would have been just past the cutoff under the old rules.

Nicolas Bedos' romantic drama La Belle Epoque, set for release Nov. 6, might prove too whimsical for the selection committee, even though it was beloved by critics in Cannes, and Christophe Honore's October-slated On a Magical Night could face the same challenge, though it won star Chiara Mastroianni the best actress prize in the Un Certain Regard section. But now, they, too, have a chance under the new system.

Celine Sciamma's Cannes best screenplay winner Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which follows a lesbian love affair as an artist works on a wedding painting, will easily make the deadline with its release mid-September. Even in a year with an embarrassment of riches, this looks like the French film to beat for the Oscars. 

France finally changed its rules for Oscar eligibility after years of contentious choices, with many of the country's most acclaimed films getting snubbed.

Blue Is the Warmest Color, which took the Palme d'Or not only for director Abdellatif Kechiche but also lead actresses Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos back in 2013, missed that year's submission deadline due to its October release. The film's producers attempted a qualifying run at the time, but the CNC dismissed the effort saying it required a wide release. 

France instead sent the much lower-profile Renoir, which had bowed without fanfare in Cannes Un Certain Regard section the year before (it did not get an Oscar nomination).

When France submitted Emmanuel Finkiel's Memoir of War, the Marguerite Duras biopic starring Melanie Thierry, as its Oscar submission last year, it was widely seen as a snub to a handful of higher-profile films. War had quietly premiered at the country's Angouleme Film Festival in 2017 and received tepid reviews. But it was put forward ahead of Olivier Assayas Non-Fiction, starring Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche and Guillaume Canet, which premiered at Venice and screened at both Toronto and Telluride — the triumvirate of festivals that have become Oscar launching pads in the last few years. The American Academy, unsurprisingly, passed on Memoir of War.

At the time, Non-Fiction producer Charles Gillibert tried to schedule a qualifying run for the movie, but the CNC held a hard line and decided it wasn't enough. The film's U.S. distributor Jonathan Sehring, of Sundance Selects, called the rules “arcane.”

The CNC seems to have finally taken that to heart announcing the change this week.

"Thanks to this evolution, the selection committee will have more choices — including among the films that will be released in the fall — to find the ideal film to represent French cinema in this prestigious race," said CNC president Frédérique Bredin, announcing the change.

France's rule change brings the country in line with AMPAS guidelines, which have always allowed foreign-language submissions to have short engagements, requiring only that a title be screened in a theater for seven consecutive days ahead of an eventual theatrical release. The foreign-language category was re-Christened the 'best international feature film' back in April. 

The CNC will also add three rotating seats for a total of six on the selection committee, which counts among its permanent members Cannes Film Festival head Thierry Fremaux, French Academy president Alain Terzian and UniFrance film body president Serge Toubiana.

Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist took the best picture award in 2012, when France sent the blockbuster feel- good film The Intouchables, starring Omar Sy, to the Academy. It made the shortlist, but failed to score a nomination.

In 2013, when France famously snubbed Blue Is the Warmest Color, Michael Haneke's Love took the prize and was nominated in a handful of other categories. Despite being in French and starring French actors Jean-Michel Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva and Isabelle Huppert, the film was submitted by the director's native Austria.

But the last time the country took home the best foreign language trophy was with the Catherine Deneuve starrer Indochine 25 years ago.