Only once has the winner of the top prize in Cannes ever matched the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture. 1955’s Marty won both, but no film has been able to duplicate that feat in the more than a half-century since. But now Michael Haneke‘s Amour, nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture and also winner of the 2012 Cannes Festival’s Palme d’Or, has the chance to do it. However it’s a clear long shot, this year’s Oscar wild card.
No foreign-language film has ever won Oscar’s top prize, although several have been nominated such as Cries And Whispers, Il Postino and others. A handful, only four before Amour, have been nominated in both the Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture categories. Z (1969), Life Is Beautiful (1998), and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) all won in Foreign Language Film but lost Best Picture. The Swedish film, The Emigrants had the distinction of nominations in both categories over the course of two years when Academy rules for foreign language films eligibility in other categories was different. It lost both Foreign Language Film in 1971 and Best Picture in 1972.
The problem seems to be Academy members generally think the Foreign Film prize is a kind of Best Picture award making the trick of actually winning both a Herculean task to be sure. The film has been the most low-key on the awards season circuit as well. Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker and Tom Bernard are realistic about the prospects of Amour pulling this off (they were in this position with Crouching Tiger) but never say never in a year that has been as widely split as this one, with several films still realistically in the hunt. Amour’s other nominations include Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Haneke and Best Actress for Emmanuelle Riva. It stands a reasonably good chance of winning for both Foreign Language and Screenplay although the last film to successfully put off both those wins was Claude LeLouche’s A Man And A Woman in 1966 (a film that ironically co-starred Amour’s Jean-Louis Trintignant who was not – and shamefully has never been – Oscar nominated, even though just like this year, his female co-star Anouk Aimee was up for Best Actress in that ’66 race).
Riva also is definitely a real contender to watch for lead actress. At 85 she is the oldest ever to be nominated in the lead category. In fact I have a hunch if it were just the actor branch voting she would take it, but in the finals it is the entire Academy voting. I have spoken to several high profile actors who always mention her – and the film – as their favorite. Her performance has a strong emotional connection for people. In fact during a SAG Q&A I moderated several weeks ago for Nicole Kidman, Kidman actually stopped talking about her own film in order to praise Riva’s work and urge the voters to see it. When I ran into Kidman at the Producer’s Guild awards last weekend we talked about it. “I told you. We actors know a great performance,” she said before going on in detail about what made it work so well and why it affected her so deeply. With the Academy’s preferential system where voters usually put their most passionate choice in the first position on the ballot, Amour is the type of film likely to elicit number one votes from those who admire the movie. In a year where so many films are in play (including higher profile and more-buzzed contenders like Argo, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Life Of Pi, Les Miserables, and Zero Dark Thirty), a split could produce a scenario where the film, which is actually the Austrian entry in the foreign language race, could benefit, particularly from those members who aren’t eligible to vote in the Foreign Language category (where rules state you must prove you have seen all five nominees). At any rate it’s always fun to speculate. And the Guild contests which usually are good indicators are not helpful at all since Amour hasn’t figured in any of them for various reasons. A downside is that some people do find it too hard to watch, too close to home and that could hurt its chances with a segment of voters. But everyone seems to praise the performances.
In the actress race could Riva become only the sixth person to ever win an Oscar for a performance solely in a foreign language? It’s entirely possible if enough of the entire Academy actually see the film. Front runners Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain both deliver brilliant performances and have the most heat (particularly Lawrence after her SAG win), and Riva hasn’t been in Hollywood campaigning or on the Q&A circuit at all this entire season, but there does seem to be a sort of groundswell of support I am detecting. It would certainly be a nice birthday present. The French star, known best for 1960’s classic Hiroshima Mon Amour, turns 86 years old on Oscar day February 24th. Barker confirms she will be coming to the Academy Awards.
As for Haneke, 70, the director is a two-time winner of the Palme d’Or as well as other prizes and was disappointed two years ago when his Foreign Language nominee The White Ribbon lost despite front-runner status in that category. This year his wrenching study of a couple dealing with the end of life and their lives together, is again a front runner at least in that category. It won perhaps the biggest, most sustained standing ovation I have ever seen in Cannes after the Palme d’Or was announced and Haneke, Riva and Trintignant took to the stage. It is also up for 4 key BAFTA awards, 10 Cesar Awards (including Picture and acting) and recently swept the European Film Awards in the top 4 categories. Its impact on the Academy, which of course has many senior members who may identify with the subject matter, shouldn’t be discounted. However Haneke told me in a recent inteview the film’s main theme isn’t really about “aging” at all. It’s more universal in scope.
“I would like to say I don’t think I made a film about aging or dying, but rather in my personal life I was confronted with the case of someone who I loved very deeply, someone in my family who was suffering very deeply and I had to look on helplessly at the suffering and that led me to think about making the film. I could just as easily made a film about a 40-year-old couple who is coping with a child dying of cancer but, however tragic that story would have been, it would have remained an individual case whereas old age is something all of us are going to have to cope with at some point. So from the very beginning it meant choosing old age and allowing greater possibilities of identification for the audience,” he said.
Haneke said he would not have made the film if the 82-year-old Trintignant had turned it down. He wrote it specifically for him. The actor had not made a film in 14 years but was impressed by Haneke’s other films and agreed to do it. Riva was chosen after a number of age-appropiate French stars were seen for the role.
Unlike the rest of its Best Picture competition, Amour was a more modest film, almost entirely shot in a single apartment which according to Haneke was always the idea. “First when you get older, when you have ill health then your life is reduced to the four walls you are living in. But beyond that there was also the challenge that dealing with a theme of this gravity you want to find a form for the film that is on the same level, and for that I went back to the classical use of time, space and action,” he said.
Whatever happens it is probably safe to say this much-acclaimed film is likely to find itself in the winners circle at some point on February 24th. How far it can go is anyone’s guess.