Sunday, 28 February 2016

The Curious Case of the Foreign Language Film Oscar

When asked about Tristana's chances in the awards season Luis Buñuel declared “nothing would disgust me more morally than winning an Oscar.” The Academy proved themselves capable of some subtle perversity by rewarding the charmless director with a statuette three years later.

There is another twist fit for the director of Simon of the Desert. The recipient of The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie's Oscar was not Buñuel  or its producer Serge Silberman but France. For it is the quirk of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film that the film is credited to a country -sometimes determined by the origin of the film's financing, sometimes by the director's nationality. The bizarre entry process of one country, one film is more Eurovision than Eurovision (at least there is established national-level selection procedures for the song contest). Instances such as the crediting of Amour -filmed in Paris, in French, starring icons of Gallic cinema- to Austria seem intuitively wrong.

The case against the foreign category is well established. Like Buñuel's saintly Simon suffering atop of a pillar the foreign Oscar stands to express something worthy but is constantly undermined by its own absurd logic. It is token internationalism that serves to underline Oscar's parochialism. Yet to be irritated by the category is also somehow to expect more from Oscar's mandate than is perhaps fair or necessary. Since its creation the Academy has overlooked some of the most daring and innovative contributions to English language cinema. For film lovers the Oscars are at best a laproscopic viewpoint into the bowels of industrial American cinema, observing the bodies that have entered the bloodstream ('their time has come') and those that have been rejected ('snubbed', a word that is a posh for humiliation and in ancient times would have been expressed through tragedy).

It is telling that the foreign language category was officially instated in 1956. This was the year that France and Britain were dealt a humiliating blow over Suez. Although hegemony had long before shifted to the US '56 was the official climb down for the former powers and the acknowledgment of their fundamental dependence. The foreign language Oscar, in its own small way, was a gesture of American supremacy: the rest of the world is a separate category.

Accepting Oscar for who he is, the foreign language award remains a fascinating resource of insights into an industry that isn't used to looking outside of itself. While the great artists of cinema history -Fellini, Bergman, De Sica- are all quietly present in the category's hall of winners, I have the sense that they are there by virtue of their fame having reached the point of unavoidability. The Oscar tag did not affect their careers in the way that a Palm d'Or or Golden Lion would. Its currency is more like an antique coin long out of circulation. 

The Academy has tended towards films that earnestly put the national soul on trial: Official Story brought Argentina's dirty war to global attention; Black and White and Colour lacerated french colonial experience; No Man's Land's makes the Bosnian war the epic of our times; and the many films about Holocaust experience and its complicated legacy (4 winners since 1986, 5 if Son of Saul does, as expected, triumph).

It's this pull towards big themes that makes the period of the late 60s and early 70s a golden age for the foreign language Oscar. The Academy championed brilliant and brave films from Russia and the Soviet bloc- Closely Observed Trains, The Shop on Main Street, War and Peace- all by directors unknown to both audiences and critics. Politics no doubt played a part in the Academy's embracing of films that vexed the communist censors. But this wasn't the whole story. Excitably angry films such as Z and Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion rubbed up against American film culture. Many of these films had not been properly distributed in the US before their award. The statuette was their route to American screens and proof that Oscar can make a positive difference. These films were subtitled but they spoke directly to urgent times. Oscar's taste was broad ranging and daring and, more often than not, spot on.

In the late 70s and 80s something changed. As with the Best Picture category there was a move away from championing the radical to favoring the safe and prestigious. Storytellers such as Imamura, Wenders, Herzog, Pialat, Sembène (could go on...) were changing global cinema but were no where to be seen on Oscar's longlists. By losing touch with these international developments foreign Oscar slipped into obscurity. Films such as Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (1978's winner), Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1980- perhaps the first ever Com-romcom), Dangerous Moves (1984), The Assault (1986) are not only under-seen but practically unavailable now. The fact that Oscar has failed to rescue them from the abyss demonstrates the award's lack of credibility.

This is a shame. Where the Academy's choices in the 'main' categories are so often swayed by star power -both in front and behind the camera- Oscar's foreign film choices have largely been in favour of unknowns. Dangerous Moves was Richard Dembo's first time. Like many winners of the award his subsequent career failed to match this early accolade. Think of Mike von Diem, whose wonderful 1997 winner Character was followed by over a decade away from film. Or von Donnersmarck's disappointing work to date following The Lives of Others. Or, for that matter, the CV of one Roberto Benigni post 1998.

Any award will have its share of one hit wonders; but the winners of the foreign Oscar over the last decade seem to be remarkable by their lack of staying power in the cinematic memory. For every Great Beauty there is a handful of Nowhere in Africas. Could it be that the category is cursed? Mike von Diem provides us a convincing explanation. “Hollywood gives you a Michelin star, and then invites you to come over and bake hamburgers.”I wonder what burgers Buñuel was asked to flip.