Come Sunday, Hollywood may be toasting the work of one of cinema’s most celebrated bearded and bespectacled directors at its lavish annual hand out of golden statues. But, there is a chance it may not be the familiar face of Steven Spielberg but the shadowy, roll necked figure of Michael Haneke gracing the stage at LA’s Kodak Theatre accepting the handouts from Hollywood’s elite.
Yes Michael Haneke, the same Michael Haneke whose disdain for Hollywood is hardly a closely guarded secret. The same Michael Haneke whose violence-heavy Funny Games went for the jugular on its attack of American cinema’s obsession with, and subsequent numbness to, extreme violence. When his original Austrian version failed to land a knock-out punch stateside it was the same Michael Haneke who made an exact remake complete in English and with recognisable stars to engage the very audience he seems to hold in such contempt.
His Palme D’or winning feature Amour can arguably claim to be the runaway success of the Academy’s nominations, picking up five nods in total. So how can this apparent nemesis of all things Hollywood now lay claim to being enfant terribles number one, no longer feared but embraced by the establishment? What’s perhaps more surprising than nominating such a critic of America’s cinematic output is the fact that Haneke is a foreign film maker making distinctly foreign language films, something largely ignored by the Academy. With that in mind, does this mean there is change afoot at the Oscars? Are they finally embracing the subtleties, craftsmanship and overlooked work of world cinema, finally putting it on a par with their own brand of multiplex mediocrity?
Sadly, there is a more likely reason for Amour falling in favour with the Academy. Before its actual release, Amour was being whispered about as a sign of Haneke finally yielding to sentiment and emotion. The tale of an aging couple, struggling on alone with just their ‘amour’ keeping them going sounded almost heart-warming. There is reason to believe that some voters were sold on the idea rather than the reality of Amour, the warm end-of-life saga resonating with the notoriously elderly members. In reality, of course, it delivers the usual cold punch Haneke has become so masterful at handling.
There is reason to celebrate Amour’s success – its nominations come in the traditionally heavyweight categories of Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress alongside the obligatory Best Foreign film nod. However, that a film of Amour’s quality is having to celebrate a mere mention among the usual Oscar fodder is indicative of how blind Hollywood can be when it comes to films not in its native tongue.
The Awards concession to all things outside the English language was the formation of the aforementioned Best Foreign Film category. Film-making countries from across the globe are given the generous amount of 1 film to put forward as a contender for the Academy to consider. That’s one. One film from a years worth of cinema to be chosen above countless others, judged best suited to appeal to the Academy members taste. So impossible is it for a country whose first language isn’t our own to possibly make more than one award-worthy film and so stretching it is to expect said members to suffer their way through any more subtitles than they have to that the one country one film rule was born.
This rule only serves to obscure and skew the works of film-makers outside the US and has ramifications in this year’s ceremony. Falling foul of this bizarre condition this year was Jacques Audiard and his acclaimed Rust and Bone. The French Film Academy, reduced to their solitary vote, elected Intouchables as their most likely chance of success across the Atlantic. It’s an understandable decision – their pick was a record-breaking box office success in its homeland and fared well among audiences overseas. It also had a redemptive, uplifting tone likely to appease the Academy, something Amour distinctly lacks.
It does however underline the obscurity of the nomination process which forced the wonderful Rust and Bone to be overlooked, no doubt jeopardising the chances of its star Marion Cotillard to be nominated for the Best Actress award (surely no Academy member would watch an overseas film they weren’t forced to).
Away from the absurd one film rule, there is another baffling element to the category, one that may be on show come this year’s ceremony. It’s more than probable that Amour will win the best foreign film race, marking Austria as the victorious nation due to the nationality of director Michael Haneke. This ruling overlooks the merits of the very un-Austrian production of the film itself. Financed with French money by a French production company and shot in France with French actors speaking French, Amour has more than a whiff of a Gallic accent to it. It is unlikely that the film would have been quite the same had it not, and yet it is Austria who will be on the record books as producing the years best film outside of the English speaking world. They may well have produced a great director but had very little to do with the making of the film.
Perhaps expecting any kind of change is futile. The Oscars has never been a place to acknowledge the cinematic world as a whole, lifting the work of foreign cinema aloft on the burley and financially sound shoulders of Hollywood studios. It is intended as an office party of sorts, celebrating those on the same team, just down the road and familiar faced, meeting once a year to slap each-other on the back and congratulate one another on their fine achievements. The fancy festivals of the Med and mystical Europe are seen as the place to acknowledge the work of everyone else. And, while the likes of Cannes and Venice have regularly embraced the works of Hollywood’s finest – Scorsese, Malick, Copolla – giants of European cinema such as Godard, Fellini and Renoir were consistently overlooked by the industry’s biggest bash.
We can hope for a change in attitude or an alteration to the foreign film category but both seem unlikely. For now we are left with Haneke and Amour. How ironically apt it would be for him all of people to truly break out of the ‘foreign’ ghetto and into the glittering Hollywood limelight.