How do you say 'stinks' in French?

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According to Metacritic.com, a website that tracks critical reaction to current films, one of the five best-reviewed movies of 2005 — right up there with "Capote" and "Brokeback Mountain" — is "Caché," a provocative drama by the respected Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. The film earned raves from Time, Newsweek, Roger Ebert, USA Today, our paper and Entertainment Weekly, which called it a "fabulously unsettling, doesn't-leave-your-head thriller." With the weight of such critical consensus behind it, "Caché" would surely be a front-runner for one of the five slots in the Academy Awards' best foreign-language film competition, right?

Wrong.

In what represents another dispiriting loss for the foreign film category, the motion picture academy refused to accept the film when it was submitted by Austria. The reason? "Caché's" dialogue is in French. The academy's rules specify that a film must be in the principal language of the submitting country. Making matters worse, the rules also say that the creative talent from the submitting country must exercise "artistic control of the film." Since Haneke, as the artist in control of the film, is Austrian, France had no reason to pick the film either. This made "Caché," at least in terms of the foreign film award, a film without a country.

"I have great respect for the academy, but it's really difficult to explain to a filmmaker who's just made one of the year's best films that he isn't even eligible," says Michael Barker, co-head of Sony Pictures Classics, whose company has been the industry's leading distributor of foreign films for two decades. "It just doesn't seem right for bureaucratic rules to supersede the artistry of film."

Haneke's film isn't alone. This year the academy has disqualified eight films, four of them over principal-language issues. The original Greek entry, "Brides," was disqualified for having too much English. Italy's initial submission, "Private," got the boot for being in Arabic and Hebrew. "Be With Me," from Singapore director Eric Khoo, was disqualified after stopwatch-wielding academy officials decided its dominant language was English.

In 2004, the foreign film category was missing more top films. One of the year's best pictures, "The Motorcycle Diaries," was left out because its creative team came from so many different countries that no one nation would submit it. "Maria Full of Grace," another much-praised film, was rejected as Colombia's submission by the academy, which ruled that the film had too much English and not enough Spanish.

The end result is that the academy, which exists to reward excellence in cinema, ends up giving its prestigious imprint not to the year's best foreign film but to what would more accurately be described as the year's best foreign film that survives a bruising confrontation with the academy's arcane, often impenetrable rulebook.

The academy's problem is rooted in its antiquated one-country, one-film-entry mandate. The loss is not just the academy's but ours, because Haneke's film, which grapples with many of the messy cultural issues of our day, deserves the broader airing in America that an Oscar nomination or win would provide.

A film brimming with Hitchcock-style voyeurism and psychological terror, "Caché" also offers a barbed portrait of class-based social grievances that seems ripped from today's headlines. Haneke's tale depicts a smug Parisian couple — played by Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil — tormented by a mysterious stalker who leaves surveillance tapes and creepy drawings of a child's bloody mouth on their doorstep. The drawings make us fear for the safety of their 12-year-old son, but they also evoke a shameful secret from Auteuil's past involving his mistreatment of a young Algerian immigrant boy. Once a worker on Auteuil's parents' farm, the Algerian is today one of society's rejects, a shabby figure who initially appears all too likely a suspect.

Auteuil's pursuit of his tormentor turns "Caché" into an unsettling cat-and-mouse thriller in which, as the New Yorker's Anthony Lane described it, "the mouse and cat insist on swapping roles." The film couldn't be more timely as a political statement, coming in the wake not only of Sept. 11, but also arriving in France just as riots engulfed the immigrant-filled Parisian suburbs last fall.

"To me it's a great film because it speaks to the ambiguous nature of our modern-day lives," Barker says. "In France, it has a specificity about their colonial history with Algeria. But it could also be about America and Iraq. I think Haneke really captures the unnerving anxiety of modern life, regardless of whether you're surviving a terrorist attack or a mugging on the street."

In 2001, Haneke's film "The Piano Teacher," starring Isabelle Huppert, was submitted by Austria and accepted by the academy. It was released in two languages, German and French, with the academy taking the German version. Since then, the academy has tightened its rules, saying, with qualifiers, that "the recording of the original dialogue track as well as the completed film must be predominantly in an official language of the country submitting the film."

According to producer Mark Johnson, chairman of the foreign-language film selection committee, the rules were changed because "we found that some countries, when they didn't have an Oscar-worthy movie of their own, were dubbing movies into their language just to meet our qualifications."

Johnson insists that the academy's rules did not make "Caché" a film without a country.

"If France had submitted 'Caché,' we would've accepted it," he says. "Its actors and key members of its crew are French, so it would not have been a problem. We've bent rules in the past, we've done anything to find a way to accept a film."

However, producers from the foreign film world say it's disingenuous for the academy to claim that its rules are bendable in a year where films were disqualified simply for late delivery of entry forms and prints. Having only one shot at Oscar glory, most nations select a film that best represents their own film industry. "If you're French and see that rule about artistic control having to be from your own creative talent, would you make a film with an Austrian director your entry?" Barker asks. "No way. These countries justifiably want to honor their own filmmakers."

The academy had no answer for "The Motorcycle Diaries" either, which presented the kind of dilemma the academy will face in the future as it sees more films that are the product of cross-cultural, multinational collaborations. "Diaries" was filmed in Spanish and shot in three Latin American countries. Its director was from Brazil, its leading man from Mexico, its screenwriter from Puerto Rico, its cinematographer from France and much of its crew from Argentina.

"So what do you do with that?" asks Jose Rivera, the film's screenwriter and an academy member. "None of those countries had enough sense of participation to nominate the film. The one-film, one-country rules are just too archaic to take into account the globalization of today's film business."

Johnson deserves plenty of credit for modernizing the foreign film selection process, especially by encouraging more participation from active industry members. But I think the academy has to be willing to change as the world changes. My proposal: Put the academy's foreign-language executive committee, which handles such key decisions as eligibility issues, in charge of nominating five wild-card entries in the foreign film category. It would open up the awards to movies that either have tricky nationality issues or weren't nominated by host countries (meaning that some great Chinese or Iranian filmmaker wouldn't be shut out of the Oscars just because he or she had made a film unpopular with the country's government).

The precedent already exists at the Grammys, where a special committee gets to vet the top 20 records voted on by the general membership in the top four categories, adding worthy entries or subtracting clinkers. Academy Executive Director Bruce Davis argues that a wild-card system would be a procedural nightmare, forcing members to see an unrealistic number of movies. "It could also get us into all sorts of political awkwardness," he says. "We could end up with a slate of two French films and three Italian ones. If a wild card is from the same nation as another finalist, you've changed the nature of the category, where five nations are represented each year."

But the academy already allows two actors or actresses from the same movie to earn best supporting nominations, if that's what the voters decide. And the wild card wouldn't put an undue strain on voters. According to academy rules, members who picked the first round of foreign films this year had to see only a dozen films out of 54 submissions to have their votes count. Adding five more films to the overall list wouldn't significantly alter the process.

The alternative isn't very pretty. At a time when the academy's TV ratings are in a steady decline, it desperately needs to find ways to embrace the new global universe. What counts isn't which country a film comes from, but whether a film has the power to touch people's hearts and souls, border lines be damned.

"The Big Picture" runs each week in Calendar. If you have questions or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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