The Foreign Language Film category: about as relevant to blockbuster critics and click-bait media as Italian Neorealism. But with LGBT being well represented and countries such as Mozambique, Senegal and Syria submitting for the first time, you’d think this category would be a PC-media treasure trove. Unfortunately this year was no different, subtitles are still receiving no love.
For a cinephile, this category is significant because these films age just as well if not better than their English counterparts. Movies such as Bicycle Thieves (same year as All the King’s Men), La Strada (Around the World in 80 Days) and Cinema Paradiso (Driving Miss Daisy) all hold their own in cinema history. How did 2018 fare? You’d have to start with the prize-winner: A Fantastic Woman.
The fantastic woman in question is Marina. A waitress and singer, she’s just moved in with her older boyfriend Orlando who’s left his wife and family for her. The catch is Marina is not just any woman, she’s played by the transgender actress Daniela Vega. That’s no spoiler, it’s clear from the fifth minute (if you’re woke). But when Orlando suddenly dies, under what’s believed by his family and authorities to be suspicious circumstances, Marina has to fight to clear her name and keep her dignity.
Perhaps it won because Hollywood is desperate to appear inclusive after criticism that there aren’t enough LGBT actors playing LGBT roles (rather than Eddie Redmayne and Jared Leto). But the Oscar bait criticisms are also unfair. A Fantastic Woman is more than a probe into the infuriating repercussions of transphobia, it’s a character study of someone with dogged determination for basic human respect and validation. This could follow any victimised minority and the story would be just as relevant and moving. In fact it shares themes with Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope, a film that explores the predicament of asylum-seekers in Europe. Although handled in Kaurismäki’s typically dry and offbeat style, it’s just as heartfelt. Sadly it wasn’t even submitted by Finland.
Did A Fantastic Woman deserve the win? Possibly. It features incredible performances and it’s a solid addition to Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s filmography that focusses largely on strong female leads. It’s also accompanied by a sometimes-chilling, sometimes-grandiose but always impressive soundtrack by Matthew Herbert.
Still, I would’ve liked The Square to have landed the vote. It’s provocative, sharp and experimental much like Ruben Östlund’s previous film Force Majeure which won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015.
In this absurd satire about the art world, Christian is a curator at an illustrious gallery in Stockholm with a desperation to maintain his social standing. With everything in his life seemingly happening at once, his new exhibition The Square also needs a marketing stunt to create a buzz. But when his phone is stolen in a well-plotted mugging that could be considered performance art itself, Christian takes his eyes off the marketing team and they run wild and reckless. This initiates the chain of events through which his life unravels one scene at a time.
Although it primarily examines the fragility of masculinity, it’s neither gender specific nor desperately topical. Östlund observes power struggles and bourgeois insecurities from every angle and through every character. It’s as if he first wrote the characters and then thought up their worst nightmares before vindictively placing them in that very situation to see how they’d react. The results are unadulterated entertainment.
The elite art world is the most exposed to Östlund’s derision. He explores the faint line between art and scam. At first the exhibitions are genuinely interesting, but one small event paints each in a new light and they end up looking farcical.
Swinging between drama, comedy and suspense effortlessly, you don’t know what’s coming. It’s like sitting in a driverless Tesla with a box of popcorn and a Slush Puppy and simply trusting the journey. It turns on its tropes just as you’re feeling a hint of familiarity and it pushes the boundaries of screenwriting and the comfort levels of its audience.
From cringe-worthy marketing pitches in boardrooms with a crying babies, to a man with Tourette’s howling profanities at an artist while he’s being interviewed on stage, the characters face one disturbing scenario after another. It’s a little like The Office, except you have no idea who’s the butt of the joke. Maybe it’s the audience. Or the art world. Possibly humanity itself. It’s ironic that in 2018, an LGBT film feels more digestible for The Academy.
Always an outsider this year was Loveless by Andrey Zvyagintsev whose previous epic Leviathan was also up for the award in 2015.
Loveless doesn’t quite live up to his impressive catalogue which also includes The Return. But, being one of 2003’s best films in any language, that’s a hard act to follow. Loveless is a slow-burning, misanthropic narrative that criticizes modern Russia and its moral compasses: family, politics and religion. It’s about a young boy that goes missing after feeling trapped between toxic parents feuding over his fate when their divorce is finalised. It’s the kind of cinematic realism that would make Ken Loach proud. Loveless is worth watching for Mikhail Krichman’s harrowing cinematography alone. As are all of his collaborations with Zvyagintsev.
There were many remarkable foreign films in 2017 so, apart from those mentioned, this probably wasn’t the strongest nomination list. It would’ve garnered more attention by including acclaimed directors Michael Haneke for Happy End and Fatih Akin for In The Fade. But Joachim Trier’s Thelma, which I thought was one of 2017’s standout films, certainly deserved more recognition.
Thelma is a moody Nordic coming-of-age story with more than a sinister hint of the supernatural. Even if Hollywood disagrees, this is a film worth tracking down.
Let’s hope the media coverage next year won’t be #OscarsSoEnglish