a theatre, film & pop culture review
This category has always been controversial, largely due to its selection process. Each country can only submit one film, and over the course of three months, the several hundred members of the Foreign Language committee attend screenings of the 71 films, rating each entry on a scale from six to ten. The six films with the highest score move on to round two, as do an additional three that the Foreign Language executive committee add (mmkay). To trim the shortlist of nine down to the final five, twenty voters in L.A. and ten in New York view all the films one weekend in the beginning of January. (This is almost as convoluted as that — thankfully nixed this year — Best Original Song selection process.)
Michael Haneke’s Amour is a brutal and devastating depiction of a couple dealing with the ailments of old age and impending death. Revealing pieces of their relationship through a series of subtle flash-forwards and flashbacks, we never get the full picture: she calls him (jokingly?) a “monster;” he’s distant, almost cruel, to their concerned daughter. The ambiguity intrigues, rather than frustrates, and despite the peppered harshness, there’s real, life-altering, heart-wringing love there. Director-writer Michael Haneke guides two superb performances through a slim, well-crafted script, earning the film the BAFTA, Golden Globe, and the Palme d’Or at Cannes. With the average voter age at 57, Amour strikes the strongest chord, and it’s a sure thing here.
A Royal Affair is a soapy (delightfully so) mix of philosophy, history, feminism, and political history. Set in the court of 18th century King Christian VII, Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg’s film depicts the true story of the mad monarch, his young bride, and her affair with the royal doctor (the equally excellent Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Alicia Vikander, and Mads Mikkelsen, respectively). Lavishly produced (it should have received costume and production design noms), it’s the thinking-man’s — Enlightenment! Voltaire! — costume drama. See this instead of the shallow and showy Anna Karenina — you’ll thank me later, but either way, you’ll get a wonderful performance by Vikander who’s featured in both. Representing Denmark with the country’s twelfth nomination (it’s had three wins), A Royal Affair would’ve been the clear winner if Haneke hadn’t mucked it up with his old folks having strokes (I kid, I kid — I love me some Amour).
Chile, la alegría ya viene: No is the country’s first nomination. This political thriller stars the internationally-known (and beautiful, let’s be honest) Mexican actor Gael García Bernal as an advertising pro/political amateur drafted into the 1988 referendum campaign to oust dictator Augusto Pinochet in the midst of his 17-year-long reign; the title refers to the opposition’s campaign (Pinochet’s was “Yes”), a surprisingly winning combination of positivity, vibrancy, and humor to sway undecided and complacent voters. What’s most well-noted about No is its visual style: in a total commitment to the era, director Pablo Larraín utilized a super-old-school U-matic video camera to depict events in the saturated and grey tones that matched the archival footage he interspersed throughout. The result is both an annoyance and nostalgia for what essentially looks like home movies of your youth (if you’re an ’80s kid like me) — eventually, you fully give in to it, just as you do to the film’s charm. No won the Directors Fortnight prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but really, it’s just happy that voter’s said “yes” to its nomination here.
Canada’s eighth entry (winning once for The Barbarian Invasions in 1993), writer-director Kim Nguyen’s raw richly filmed War Witch is filtered through the eyes of a young Congolese girl (Rachel Mwanza) who recounts, in voiceover to her unborn child, the horrors she experienced — including being forced to kill her own parents — when abducted by the rebel army. The violence is explicit, though there is a kind of tenderness in the film’s depiction of these mercilessly exploited children. Nevertheless, the subject is harsh, and Haneke is already grasping that Oscar.
Kon-Tiki is the story of legendary explorer Thor Heyerdal’s (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen) epic 1947 crossing of the Pacific on a wooden raft in an effort prove it was possible for South Americans to settle in Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. Norway’s fifth nomination (zero wins), Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s film is visually stunning, with cresting vibrant-blue waves and realistically terrifying sharks and magnificent whales — a true high-seas adventure tale sprinkled with your typical on-board skirmishes and periods of boredom. Essentially Norway’s Life of Pi, only with less God and more facial hair, it’s also the country’s most expensive film ever made, budgeted at $16 million. Kon-Tiki may gain some popularity when released in the U.S. in its planned English language version, but it’s still got nothing on Amour.