Bong Joon Ho’s movie Parasite made history at the 2020 Academy Awards, becoming the first non-English-language film to win Best Picture.
In this series, in reverse chronological order, I compare previous years’ Best Picture and Best International Feature to see how many other foreign-language films ought to have been given the top gong.
**** This article contains spoilers! ****
International Oscar Showdown is concerned with one thing: ascertaining how many times the Academy ought to have given the Best Picture award to the winner of Foreign Language Film, prior to Parasite’s ground-breaking success at this year’s awards.
However, for 2012, it might seem redundant to be asking which film was superior out of one produced in France (The Artist) and another produced in Iran (A Separation). The Academy — kinda, sorta — had already given Best Picture to the international film when it honoured The Artist.
But, since they cast Hollywood stalwart John Goodman, and the film includes a dozen words in English at the end, I’ll consider it a Hollywood movie for the sake of this series. There was, after all, no “one-inch barrier” for the audience to overcome, as Bong Joon-ho would say. No subtitles. Only intertitles, pasted over the entire screen in gleaming 1920s typeface.
I may not know art…
I only saw The Artist for the first time recently, despite having owned it for many years. Something about it had always put me off — so I was happy to discover it wasn’t the serious, sombre movie I had conjured in my head. Instead, it’s a joyous homage to the glory days of silent cinema, and radiates palpable admiration.
Set in the late 1920s, The Artist derives its drama from the transitional phase between silent movies and the talkies, just as Singin’ in the Rain did back in 1952. However, the plot is more reminiscent of A Star Is Born: a male performer in his peak becomes increasingly redundant as a young woman he gave a leg up to becomes an unparalleled star in his dwindling absence.
There’s a slightly irritating reluctance from George to embrace the new technology (only explained when he finally speaks two words at the end), which leads him stubbornly spiralling into debt and destitution, as he pours everything he has into making another silent movie. Meanwhile, Hollywood hears the clamour of tickets being stamped at the new talkies. And accidental star Pepper rides this new wave to become the darling of Tinseltown.
Fair to say, George and Pepper have excellent faces… I know that sounds reductive — I should be talking about performance, emotion, passion — but there’s a sharpness to the features of Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo that lends itself well to 1920s stars of the silver screen. They look gloriously vintage; from George’s manly cleft chin and playful grin, to the high-cheekboned smile and bright, inquisitive eyes of Pepper. They look perfect for the parts, and radiate charisma.
As for the performances, there is an intentional goofiness at first, necessarily playing up the body language. Note when Goodman pats his girlfriend’s knee in the first few minutes, with camp gusto. It’s a stylistic choice that seems to wane beyond the first act of the film — or perhaps you simply become used to the exaggerated movements and overt facial expressions as the film progresses.
One thing that puzzled me was Malcolm MacDowell’s involvement — he’s in it for all of thirty seconds, credited as The Butler, but has no bearing on the story, and looks like a man keenly aware he is no more than a cameo. He did a lot of the promotional work, so perhaps he owed someone a favour? Or just admired the script (which he said at the time was one of the most beautifully crafted he had ever read)?
The story is a little predictable, and the film’s appeal is rather dependant on cinephiles lapping up the idolisation of a dormant art form, but it is expertly crafted and could pass for a genuine ninety-year-old film (if it weren’t for Goodman, MacDowell and the odd flourish of artistic sound design).
My favourite part, though, turned out to be a dream sequence. After watching the sound test of the new talkie technology, George finds himself at his makeup table, suddenly aware of sound. He drops items on the desk and is astonished to hear them clatter over wood. He tries to speak, but is voiceless, yet the dogs bark, and out in the street girls giggle. He screams inaudibly. A feather silently falls, until it lands on the asphalt with a mighty boom.
I quite wanted the film to explore that inventive path; I’m a big fan of the high-concept, mind-bending abstract storylines of Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Sorry To Bother You, and was hoping the rest of the film would depict George struggling in silence as the world around him begins to speak. Who knows, by the end, perhaps his environment begins bleeding into colour — like Pleasantville, but horrifying.
The Artist, though, is too enamoured with its nostalgia, and frames “progress” as a detriment to art — precisely in the way that Singin’ In The Rain and the (admittedly schmaltzy) Pleasantville do not. That’s not necessarily a bad take, it’s just not one most of us would ascribe to.
There’s plenty of inventiveness, though: I enjoyed George’s shadow abandoning him; or the drunken vision of a small adventurer-George and a band of Africans brandishing spears at him from the whiskey bar; and the switch to audio with the tap dancing finale.
The cinematography, too, is consistently impressive; I especially liked the shot of George pouring his drink over the mirrored table, momentarily obscuring his face with the ripples of booze.
Up against The Artist is 2012's winner of best Foreign Language Film, A Separation — and the first successful entry for Iran. Not long after, its director, Asghar Farhadi, would go on to win the award for a second time in 2017 with The Salesman (reviewed here).
Consequently, I had an idea of what kind of film to expect, having seen Farhadi’s later work: ethical dilemmas shall unfold between characters who are only mildly at fault, upon a backdrop of obfuscated cynicism towards the country’s conservative culture, resulting in a perplexing experience and an unnerving absence of catharsis.
That’s Farhadi’s MO. And, that’s exactly what you get…
The film begins within the claustrophobic walls of its thematic core: an adjudicator’s hearing room. The unseen judge sits behind the lens, while husband and wife Nader and Simin argue their case for custody of their child — straight to camera. It’s awkward in its intimacy.
It’s funny how marital arguments carry the same tone and timbre in whichever language they are spoken… The two leads, played by Payman Maadi and Leila Hatami, bicker with that all-too recognisable back-and-forth — it’s the parry and thrust of self-pity and deflection, professed innocence and mock-surprise. It’s extremely naturalistic, even to the point of distraction — indeed, their speech hastens so much it becomes difficult to follow the subtitles.
The couple’s rift springs from Simin’s hopes to emigrate from Iran (for reasons unspecified in the film, presumably to avoid a scolding from the national censors), while Nader refuses to abandon his father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. The question for the judge is simple: who will get to decide on the fate of their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh, played with innocence and intelligence by Sarina Farhadi (the director’s daughter, no less).
No surprise, but it’s the husband who gets the last word.
The titular separation is but a catalyst for a series of events that spiral out of control. It all stems from the carer whom Nader hires to look after his father, once Simin has moved out to her mother’s. There’s a clear class divide between the middle-class couple — a bank manager and a teacher — and the hired help, Razieh (a much more religious woman from a poor part of Tehran), and her unemployed, terminally indebted husband Hojjat.
To describe all the multifarious schisms between these four characters requires too much detail to go into here, but it involves a woman too religious to change the clothes of an old incontinent man, a pregnancy brought to a tragic accidental end, the potential murder charges associated with causing a mid-term miscarriage, a husband who hasn’t given permission for his wife to work at the house of a single man, and the tying up of an old man to a bed so that the carer can attend to errands.
Where The Salesman was a little slow in the third act due to its theme of neutered revenge, the tension in A Separation never stops ramping up, as each trip to the judge reveals more uncertainty, more accusations, and more frighteningly heartless bureaucracy. Who is at fault? In the end, everyone and no one.
The legal system is a character unto itself — it seems chaotic to have claimant and defendant in such close proximity, pleading their cases to a judge sat a metre away behind a desk, while half a dozen other people walk in and out filing documents from other disputes. It’s a mess, but the characters’ lives are bound by it.
All the while, Iran’s conservatism is repeatedly laid bare, though Farhadi refrains from open criticism. He simply portrays plausible situations, and lets them speak for themselves. Most of these moral quandaries are born of the repressed relationship between men and women — no touching, no working without a man’s permission, no divorce unless the husband accepts, and so on.
It’s quite a complex film, despite its domestic narrative, and, as usual with Farhadi’s work, you find it hard at its conclusion to hate anyone, or take anyone’s side. It is a muddle of level-headed empathy, and, in my experience, much closer to real life than most films dare attempt. The ending is frustratingly poignant in that the audience cannot be certain of the decision of the daughter, Termeh, as she expresses to a judge off screen which parent she prefers to live with.
They are both good people, both flawed; just as Termeh is good, but flawed. It’s a muddle of human wants and needs and vulnerabilities, and God knows how it will end.
This was one of the trickier match-ups, though my gut instinct is to give it to the Iranian film. The Artist is a delightful, exquisitely crafted movie, and a refreshing change from the modern fare — albeit a refresh of an extinct format — but it didn’t grab me or affect me in any meaningful way, besides instilling a sense of phantom nostalgia for a world I never knew and would likely find extremely irritating were it the norm.
On the other hand, A Separation is a drama of effortless complexity, building tension expertly in its domestic setting. The performances are natural and convincing, while the shocks are multitudinous and (to the characters) earth-shattering. A daunting accomplishment, then, considering the stringent censorship that Iranian filmmakers must abide by — and frequently face imprisonment for breaching.
Crikey; after a stumbling start, the international films finally record their first back-to-back wins and bring the score to 4–4. Absolute scenes.
Find out next time who will take the lead going into the 2000s, with period piece The King’s Speech up against Danish romance drama In A Better World.
Also in this series
- 2019: Green Book vs Roma
- 2018: The Shape of Water vs A Fantastic Woman
- 2017: Moonlight vs The Salesman
- 2016: Spotlight vs Son of Saul
- 2015: Birdman vs Ida
- 2014: 12 Years A Slave vs The Great Beauty
- 2013: Argo vs Amour
- 2011: The King’s Speech vs In A Better World
- 2010: The Hurt Locker vs The Secret In Their Eyes
- 2009: Slumdog Millionaire vs Departures
- 2008: No Country For Old Men vs The Counterfeiters
- 2007: The Departed vs The Lives Of Others
- 2006: Crash vs Tsotsi
- 2005: Million Dollar Baby vs The Sea Inside
- 2004: The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King vs The Barbarian Invasions