Amour is a very difficult movie. I would go so far as to say it’s the toughest, most painful Best Picture nominee in an awfully long time. It’s so heartbreaking and uncomfortable that I was somewhat taken aback when it pulled five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Sure, Emmanuelle Riva seemed like a good bet and it was certainly going to be ahead of the pack in the Foreign Film category, but that top-tier nomination? Only eight foreign language films have been nominated for Best Picture in the past, and only one of them (Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers) is as profoundly upsetting as Michael Haneke’s blunt portrait of love and death. It just didn’t seem likely.
Obviously, I was wrong. Let’s hope that isn’t the theme of the season. In hindsight, the impressive crop of nominations for Amour makes a ton of sense. It makes so much sense that I think it has a very good shot at winning three Oscars. Here’s the case:
Americans, Eternal Optimists
There appears to be a fundamental division over how critics interpret Amour. There are those who side with the title of the film and declare it to be the greatest of love stories, a tender (if brutal) look at the strength of a relationship in the face of mortality. On the other hand, there are many who seem to think it’s a deeply pessimistic film that is more about how death affects love than the other way around.
When co-producer Stefan Arndt took the stage at the Critics’ Choice Awards he thanked American critics for their overwhelming support of the first interpretation, that at heart this is a love story. I’m not so sure myself – I think both arguments have a lot of validity, and it really rides on how you read just a handful of key scenes. Yet the American Academy seems to think this is by far Haneke’s warmest film, and have opened their hearts accordingly.
The Best Foreign Film Factor
Frustratingly, it often seems that every year a lone film ends up universally anointed the “Best Foreign Film.” Last year, for example, it was A Separation. Asghar Farhadi’s stunning divorce drama grabbed just about every single prize, from critics groups to the Academy. It was as if the entire world really only produced one great film in 2011. Now we see that happening with Amour.
It’s a strange and irritating phenomenon. Other extraordinary work tends to get eclipsed, and the frontrunner is often the only genuinely complex film to even make it to an Academy Best Foreign Language Film nomination. Moreover, a single outsider film tends to get declared equally worthy in response – just look at this season’s outsized, shrill outrage over the lack of nominations for Holy Motors.
Understandably, this kind of attention can push a movie well beyond the Best Foreign Language Film category. It propelled A Separation to a Best Original Screenplay victory (correction: thanks to a late night a misread Wiki page, our writer incorrectly named A Separation as the Best Original Screenplay winner, when it was actually Midnight In Paris, thanks to reader Matty for pointing that out!) and I would argue it allowed Pan’s Labyrinth to earn three Oscars in spite of eventually missing the theoretically easier category. In this case, the only film that might have surprised Amour on Oscar night (The Intouchables) isn’t even nominated.
Haneke will definitely win the foreign category, and has an excellent shot at screenplay. Quentin Tarantino could win for Django Unchained¸ but I would argue that his win at the Golden Globes means nothing and that victory last year for A Separation means the Academy is entirely willing to award bold work from beyond Hollywood. Amour would be the fourth French-language film to win Best Original Screenplay.
Best Actress – Emmanuelle Riva
No, Emmanuelle Riva isn’t going to win Best Actress simply because the Academy Award ceremony will be on her 86th birthday (but it certainly doesn’t hurt). She has a very decent shot for much more defensible reasons. At the top of this category is a high-profile race between Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain. They both keep winning things, usually in the same night. They both give great speeches, rich with the charming and clever personality that can help so much on the way to Oscar night. Really, the smartest prediction is to discount everyone else and go with one of these two.
Yet any time there isn’t a single clear frontrunner, anything is possible. Naomi Watts has many a fan and she’s been building up goodwill in Hollywood for years. People will vote for her. More people will vote for Quvenzhané Wallis, whose adorable showing at the Critics’ Choice Awards was only the most public moment in a campaign full of perfectly chosen dresses and star-like charm. And, finally, many Academy members will be casting their ballots for Emmanuelle Riva. This is an incredibly tight race.
Lawrence and Chastain both gave extraordinary performances, but both of them have indubitably Oscar-buzz filled careers ahead. Riva, on the other hand, is getting to the end of a long and fruitful life in cinema. The Academy may not have been following her until now, but they have been made aware of the legacy of her work even if they haven’t actually seen any of it. Moreover, her stunning turn in Amour looms large over the comparatively slight Silver Linings Playbook. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the (predominantly older) voters chose to put off rewarding the younger talents and gave the Oscar to Riva.
In America, They Make Only Non-Foreign-Language-Films
At the end of the day Amour could walk away with three Academy Awards. What does that say about the Oscars, and how they’ve changed over the years? Are they suddenly much more open to foreign films? Well, no. But the question was never actually that simple.
Leos Carax couldn’t attend the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Association awards ceremony to accept for Best Foreign Film, but he did send this speech (via The Vote):
“Hello, I’m Leos Carax, director of foreign-language films. I’ve been making foreign-language films my whole life. Foreign-language films are made all over the world, of course, except in America. In America, they only make non-foreign-language films. Foreign-language films are very hard to make, obviously, because you have to invent a foreign language instead of using the usual language. But the truth is, cinema is a foreign language, a language created for those who need to travel to the other side of life. Good night.”
He’s making fun of us, of course. It’s silly that the Academy almost never awards foreign films in the major categories. Their Foreign Language Film category is also idiotically structured, shafting films like Carax’s Holy Motors and Rust & Bone simply because France decided The Intouchables had a better shot. It needs a drastic overhaul, more than adding an executive committee to make things a little easier for more challenging works of art. Americans don’t watch enough foreign films, and we take our privileged position in the world of cinema a little bit too much for granted.
However, the Academy isn’t entirely terrible. This year, even with the big showing for Amour, features fewer nominated foreign films than has been typical over the past decade. Last year there were four, five if you count The Artist. Technical categories, especially those for make-up and costume design somewhat regularly pull from an international pool. It might not be the 1970s anymore, when foreign films seemed to pop up all over the place, but as cinema becomes more globalized so have the Oscars. If the Best Picture category had been expanded from five earlier, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, City of God and Life Is Beautiful almost certainly would have been nominated, and Red, Talk to Her and Pan’s Labyrinth are definite possibilities.
The Academy desperately needs to fix its foreign film category, and it needs a much more open mind in general, but it’s also a bit excessive to sit back and call them Philistines. And when Michael Haneke wins Best Original Screenplay, the sixth foreign film in history to do so, we should probably cheer.