France selects box office smash 'The Intouchables' for the foreign Oscar race

Posted by · 9:30 am · September 18th, 2012

Those of you who have been assuming Michael Haneke’s “Amour” is in an unassailable position for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar shouldn’t be feeling quite so confident after this morning’s news of the newest entrant in the race.

The French submission is always awaited more keenly than most at this stage: with 37 nods to date, France is the most-nominated country in the category’s history, even if they haven’t actually taken the gold in 20 years. It’s for this reason that, in any given year, the French entry tends to be regarded as a frontrunner by default — whether they’ve chosen particularly wisely or not. 

Their selection committee has made some daring choices in the past: think back to 2007, when they forsook what might have been a relatively easy nomination for “La Vie en Rose” to put forth the Iranian Revolution animation “Persepolis” instead. (They didn’t even crack the January shortlist.) This year, however, they have put commerce ahead of art with a strictly strategic choice: Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s feelgood box-office smash “The Intouchables.”

The selection of the hit culture-clash comedy will come as a blow to champions of Jacques Audiard’s higher-brow tearjerker “Rust and Bone,” who could be forgiven for thinking the Marion Cotillard vehicle (which also did pretty tidy business at home) had a decent shot of being picked. For the last five years, after all, France has gone with an acclaimed Cannes title — though only two of them (“The Class” and Audiard’s “A Prophet”) got past the submissions stages. (For similar reasons, some were holding out hope for Leos Carax’s absurdist odyssey “Holy Motors” — but even at its most adventurous, the committee is never that insane.)

“The Intouchables,” however, is an anomaly — and, frankly, has looked the obvious French submission for the better part of a year, since it started shredding all French box-office records upon its release in November 2011. Matters were eased further by the impossibility of the country submitting French-German-Austrian co-production “Amour” due to its ineligible release date in France. Austria got to do so instead — meaning the two highest-profile films in the race so far are, in the eyes of most viewers, effectively from the same country.

“The Intouchables” is by no means a critics’ film: even warmer reviews submit that this fable of a wealthy white quadriplegic given a new lease on life by his free-spirited, working-class black carer is on the condescending side, while its fiercest detractors have tried it on charges of crass cynicism and even outright racism.

The public, of course, cared not a whit, responding in droves to its slick, well-acted packaging of easy tears and easier laughs. Its commercial phenomenon status extends far beyond its home country: it currently stands as the highest-grossing French-language feature in global box-office history. Released Stateside in May by the ever-savvy Weinstein Company — who also hold the English-language remake rights — it has gone on to gross nearly $9 million. That makes it the highest-grossing foreign-language title of 2012 so far, and also lands it among the year’s Top 100 US grossers. 

As such, it arrives in the foreign-language race as one of the few submissions that the branch’s voters are likely to have already heard of, or even seen.  That’s a considerable point in favor of a film that already shouldn’t have much trouble speaking to the kind of older, more middlebrow-inclined voters who traditionally dominate this branch: they like to be broadly entertained while also being comfortably moved, and “The Intouchables” does so in the kind of way that inspires easy word of mouth. Count on the Weinsteins giving it their considerable campaign muscle — they’ve never won in this category before, though Miramax scooped its share of foreign Oscars back in the day.

There’s even been talk of the Weinsteins pushing it in general categories too, notably Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor — a category that star Omar Sy won in an upset at the Cesars earlier this year, beating eventual Oscar champ Jean Dujardin. That, however, seems a more remote possibility, and not only because the reigning Best Picture house has its hands full with such heavyweight hopefuls as “The Master,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and (perhaps) “Django Unchained.” You could argue that too much crossover success could complicate the playing field for their remake, to which Colin Firth was at one point attached; as it stands, a Best Foreign Language Film win would be a neat introduction.

Could it actually take the prize? Certainly, though it gives me no pleasure to imagine such an outcome. (After catching up with it recently, I side with the detractors.) Academy voters broke with recent form this year by actually given the critics’ darling the prize — but then again, “A Separation” wasn’t facing a pre-approved crowdpleaser. “Amour,” a far tougher and chillier sit than “The Intouchables,” could benefit from the Academy’s natural inclination toward the weighty, though the French film is sufficiently didactic and manipulative for voters to mistake it for something meaningful.

We’ve seen Haneke lose to light, tear-stained entertainment before in this category — though if Sony Pictures Classics succeeds in its campaign to net “Amour” top nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor and/or Actress, that would further compel members to vote for it in the ghetto category. (Only three films have previously been nominated for Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film in the same year; none of them lost in the latter category.) Meanwhile, with “Rust and Bone” out of the running, Sony can now concentrate that film’s campaign around a Best Actress nod for Cotillard.

All of which is to say, with many more entries yet to roll in, this category is far more up in the air than some casual observers would have you believe. The winner could well be something far more below-the-radar than either of the presumed French-language frontrunners. 

Keep track of the submissions list at our Contenders page for the category.

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