Cambodia joins the foreign Oscar race... but what of 'Amour?'
Before I get to the second official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race, a word about the film that many have been casually assuming is the film to beat in the race: "Amour." Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or basked in critical adoration at Cannes and looks sure to stand as one of the year's most lavishly acclaimed films when 2012 wraps up. After the Academy broke with tradition last year by actually giving the prize to the critics' favorite -- Iran's "A Separation" -- you could be forgiven for liking Haneke's chances this time round, particularly given that his film should resonate with the Academy's older voters, who are legion.
First, however, it actually has to be entered into the race, and that's less of a sure thing than you might think. Though it's a wholly French-set, French-language production, three countries can lay claim to it: France, Germany and Haneke's home state of Austria.
France is in no position to submit the film this year, given that its French release (October 24) falls after the Academy cut-off date. Germany, which submitted Haneke's "The White Ribbon" in 2009, opens "Amour" in September, and therefore would be permitted to enter it, but they just announced a shortlist of eight potential submissions -- and "Amour" isn't on it.
That leaves Austria, which hasn't submitted a Haneke film since "Cache," another French-language effort, was disqualified by the Academy in 2005 for being insufficiently Austrian. That move aroused enough protests to prompt a rule revision on the Academy's part, which would make "Amour" a pointed submission for Austria. It is being released just in time, but will Austrian selectors -- who have plumped for Haneke four times before -- still be smarting from 2009, when they tussled with Germany for the right to submit "The White Ribbon," and lost? The selection process is all too often a political one.
If it is submitted, it remains to be seen whether Academy voters, in spite of the rule change, will be bothered by the film's lack of obvious connection to the submitting country. Last year, Finland submitted Aki Kaurismaki's French-language "Le Havre" -- it was widely tipped for a nomination, but failed to crack even the nine-film shortlist. Was the cultural disconnect a problem for voters, or did they simply not dig it? We can only guess.
Even if "Amour" falls victim to the arcane restrictions of the foreign Oscar race, that could greatly boost its chances in the general categories. As we saw with "Talk to Her" in 2002, or "Three Colors: Red" in 1994, when voters are denied the chance to vote for foreign-language favorites in their designated ghetto category, handsome consolation nominations can follow.
Anyway, back to more certain business, as the second official submission for the foreign Oscar (after Morocco got the ball rolling last week) comes from another infrequent visitor to the race: Cambodia. Indeed, the Southeast Asian nation has only submitted (unsuccessfully) once before, way back in 1994. For their second time at bat, Cambodia has opted for Chhay Bora's "Lost Loves," which is reportedly the country's first film about the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in over two decades.
The backstory of "Lost Loves," as detailed in this Guardian piece, is an interesting one. Screenwriter-star (and Khmer Rouge survivor) Khauv Sotheary is a 47 year-old university professor who was inspired to make a film about her own mother's experience of the regime in the 1970s, during which she lost her husband, father and four children. Though a novice actress, Sotheary took the role of her mother, while fellow academic Chhay Bora, who also lost family members to the Khmer Rouge, directed.
Reviews of the film from known sources are hard to come by -- it hasn't played any festivals outside Asia -- and a clumsily-cut, heavily overscored trailer clearly doesn't do it any favors. But it looks crisply shot and potentially rather moving -- it's certainly the kind of story voters could respond to if told with the requisite polish.
Meanwhile, as mentioned above, a few more countries have announced shortlists of films vying to be submitted -- including three that, in recent years, have been regular nominees in the category. Two of Germany's eight potential submissions are documentaries: after all, they submitted "Pina" last year and cracked the Academy's nine-film shortlist. The most high-profile title on their list, however, is Christian Petzold's excellent Stasi-era character drama "Barbara," which greatly impressed me at the Berlinale, where it deservedly won the Best Director prize. It'd be a strong submission, though among the films it's up against is "Hotel Lux," a politically-tinged WWII comedy. So it's anyone's guess.
Israel, as usual, will submit the Best Picture winner at the Ophir Awards, their local Oscars: I'm unfamiliar with the five contenders, save for Rama Burshtein's "Fill the Void," which will premiere in Competition at the upcoming Venice Film Festival. Finally, Mexico's shortlist of seven possibilities includes two Cannes prizewinners. They'd be out of their minds to submit Carlos Reygadas's off-puttingly indulgent non-narrative scrapbook effort "Post Tenebras Lux," with fleshy mass orgies and self-decapitation among its many treats; "After Lucia," an acclaimed study of high-school bullying that was a surprise winner of the Un Certain Regard award, would be a wiser choice.