As I suspected, the closing of the Lincoln Plaza theatre made it more difficult for me to knock off all this year’s foreign film nominees. I had to travel well out of my comfort neighborhood to get four of them, and was expecting to have to do without On Body and Soul – but sudden access to Netflix streaming enabled to catch that, as well. So, finally, I can speak with knowledge of the full set.
I don’t think we can be certain we yet know the tendencies of voters in this category. During that long stretch when voting was limited to those who attended screenings, we got a pretty good idea of how they leaned – they’d come through for a widely popular film (like Fanny and Alexander or Crouching Tiger), but otherwise avoided anything challenging and opted too often for the sentimental… especially if it was set in the World War II era.
This changed when voting was opened to the entire membership. Actually, I wonder if it’s the entire membership votes that here – I’d guess some percentage finds keeping up with foreign films too much effort and, so, abstains. If so, they do us a favor: unlike the limited voting group of past decades, which tilted elderly (hence the sentiment), this bloc of self-selected overseas fans is apt to have more sophisticated taste. Certainly, its first few winners have included films that would have been hard-pressed to triumph in the old system – The Great Beauty and Son of Saul were esthetically bold efforts. But voters were willing to follow the critics’ lead and vote for them anyway. (This, by the way, is how it had been in the old, 1956-74 days – Academy voters back then may have made timid choices in the main categories, but they had no problem saluting Fellini, Bergman and Bunuel for foreign-language film.) It’s true Toni Erdmann proved a bridge too far for this group – the petits-four scene no doubt led to many “eject that DVD now” cries -- but the ultimate choice, The Salesman, was a legitimate fallback, not remotely in the Departures/In a Better World class.
Our problem this year, of course, is that the critics’ standard-bearer – BPM – failed to make the original list of 9, and then the Globe/Broadcast Critics’ choice – In the Fade – didn’t survive the cut to 5. So, entering this final round, voters have little guidance to work with, and we’re strictly guessing about what this current voter universe is likely to favor on its own.
I suppose the old group of sentimentalists might have gone for On Body and Soul, which, as Precious Doll and BJ have noted, is kind of a silly movie at heart. I actually thought it was pretty awful for a while (the early repeated deer shots made me think “bad student film”); then it became interesting when the intersecting dreams were introduced…but, in the end, it didn’t seem to be about much at all (half the plot turns seemed to be filler, for all they had to do with where the film ultimately went). I’d be surprised if this turned out the winner.
The Insult has what used to be the special sauce ingredient with the old group – Middle East subject matter – and I guess a fair number of people are finding it entertaining, so it can’t be ruled out. I gave my unimpressed reaction in the other foreign film thread.
I have to be the semi-dissenter on A Fantastic Woman; I didn’t think it was much of a movie. I liked the first 15 minutes or so – the set-up – and the initial scene with the female cop. But too much of the rest of the movie was a retread of so many civil right movies I’ve seen over the decades. BJ noted the film’s kinship with A Single Man, but I hasten to point out that Christopher Isherwood, being a gifted writer, made A Single Man about much more than the lover being excluded from his late lover’s funeral; in this film, it’s all there is to watch, and it becomes predictable after a while. (By the time the son semi-kidnapped Marina, I felt like I was watching a Mississippi klan movie.) The only interesting thing in the latter part of the film was the trip to the gym – both because of how it was shot, and because of the scene’s surprise denouement. (On the other hand, the walking-against-the-wind shot was too heavy-handed for words.) As far as I’m concerned, if this wins (as many are predicting), it’ll be strictly a political choice.
By me, the two strongest choices are Loveless and The Square. I was surprised to read BJ say that he felt he’d seen the marriage in Loveless fall apart many times before. I found it much more bracing than that – I was startled by the abject bitterness of the mother, which led me to blame her for everything…until I slowly saw the husband’s passive/aggressive part in the whole thing. The dialogue in these scenes struck me as pungent and engrossing. Then the entire little-boy-lost plot worked on multiple levels: first as simple lot-driver, then as a living symbol of how bad an idea their marriage was (and their desire to see it disappear), and finally, it seemed to me, as metaphor for life in Putin’s Russia – a Loveless Society, where the short-sighted narcissism of the present leaders close off any hope for future generations. I thought this was a terrific movie (and not bleak in the least) -- a real surprise, because I didn't like Leviathan at all.
The Square is also a fascinating, multi-leveled piece of work – until I saw Loveless, I thought it was by far the most dimensional work among all the nominees. It’s not a well-oiled machine – some scenes (like the savage at the formal dinner) go on too long and don’t connect up organically to the film as a while – but, like The Great Beauty, it takes a big, panoramic look at contemporary life and explores it thoroughly. This is far more the sort of film I’d like to see encouraged by awards than A Fantastic Woman.
I’d be perfectly happy for Loveless or The Square to win. Most people seem to think I should prepare myself for disappointment. We’ll see; I still think we don’t know for sure what this group of voters will favor, left to their own devices.