Every film lover has a friend (or five) whose mantra is, “I don’t do subtitles.” They’re probably the same friends who “don’t do black-and-white movies” and who become positively stricken when you utter the term “silent film.” Let’s face it: Getting most Americans to watch foreign films when they could just check out the latest Fast & Furious can be a struggle. Does the prestige of an Oscar help? Yes and no.
The Best Foreign Language Film Award became a regular Oscar category in 1956, when Federico Fellini’s bittersweet Italian tragicomedy La Strada won. Three more Fellini films went on to win foreign language Oscars: for Nights of Cabiria from 1957, 8½ from 1963 and Amarcord from 1975. Did all this Oscar prestige make Fellini a household name in Peoria or Poughkeepsie? Not really. Still, when you’re trying to convince your subtitle-shy friends to watch Amarcord, adding the fun fact that it won an Oscar will probably help your case or at least pique their interest. You still might have to bribe them with free popcorn though.
Sundance Selects was not happy when it was announced that their October 25 release Blue Is the Warmest Color would not be eligible for a Foreign Film Oscar nomination. Abdellatif Kechiche’s beautifully directed and acted story of a young lesbian couple’s love story won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, but the French drama isn’t coming out in the U.S. before the end of September (the Academy’s release requirements for Best Foreign Language consideration), so it’s out of the running. Instead of Kechiche’s film, which has been getting deservedly glowing reviews (and its share of controversy), France’s entry is Gilles Bourdos’ Renoir, which came out in the U.S. in limited release last spring—to much less fanfare. Variety called it an “atmospheric, well-acted period piece [for] older, art-savvy moviegoers everywhere.”
An Oscar campaign certainly doesn’t hurt a foreign language film’s box office numbers in the U.S., so we’ll see if all of the controversy over Blue Is the Warmest Color—which got an NC-17 rating here—makes the lack of a Best Foreign Film marketing push irrelevant. The film is one of the best I’ve seen all year, and the performances—as well as Kechiche’s patient and oddly affective pacing—are truly “Oscar worthy.” In addition to France’s entry Renoir, Hong Kong’s The Grandmaster, Iran’s The Past and Saudi Arabia’s first-ever entry, Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Wadjda, are all fantastic films that might benefit from an “Oscar winner” marketing push next year.
Last year’s Austrian winner Amour scored $6.7 million in the U.S. and $13.1 million overseas, and before that, winners A Separation (Iran, $7.1 million U.S., $12.8 million foreign) and In a Better World (Denmark, $1 million U.S., foreign $8.6 million) had varying success at the U.S. box office. There are plenty of exceptional films that either don’t get Oscar noms or don’t win (and plenty of inferior, yet commercially successful, films that do win), and in France a Palm d’Or is much more meaningful than an Academy Award.
Still, I have to agree with Deadline’s Pete Hammond, who wrote of Blue Is the Warmest Color in July: “Isn’t it embarrassing to the Academy that this film, selected by an Academy-member-heavy jury in Cannes led by Steven Spielberg, is eligible for a Golden Globe Foreign Language prize but not the Oscar?” An Oscar might not matter much in France, but, in the U.S., when I’m trying to convince my foreign language-phobic friends to see this powerful, emotionally intense love story between two women—a blue-haired artist and her blue-collar lover—the lack of Oscar attention means putting in a little extra effort to convince them it’s worth the price of a ticket.
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