I think for me (especially in these days), most of the fun with Oscar season comes from discovering the films that are honored that lie on the more alternative currents of the category layout. Everyone pays attention to the Best Picture nominees and all the acting categories, but I find that the most fun comes from the Best Short Film categories (Live Action and Animated, especially), Best Documentary Feature, and – yes – Best Foreign Language Film. There’s always usually at least one film in this latter category that I find myself loving so, so much. And that’s certainly the case with this year too! More below.
An Fantastic Woman (Chile)
There’s nothing I can say about this film that Willow hasn’t already summed up so perfectly, but I’ll give a few of my own clumsy thoughts anyway. The shining beacon in this film is Daniela Vega, who contributes some of my favorite moments of nuanced emotion that I’ve seen in any film all year. Moreover, there are quite some really lovely, arresting imagery that elevate the movie beyond its simple storyline. The main issue, though, is how the film chooses to navigate its protagonist’s experience as a trans woman, which often don’t work as well as it thinks it does. Early in the film, for example, the script explicitly avoids mentioning Marina’s birth name, which would have been a refreshing turn had they not spoken it in full later on. There are also scenes where the camera lingers over her partially nude body in ways that come off as othering. Maybe under the supervision of an actual trans director this would have been a more humanistic, true-to-life portrayal, but as it stands it feels a lot like the kind of film liberal Oscar voters would nominate to make themselves feel good about achieving the bare minimum in seeing trans folks as people.
The Insult (Lebanon)
Sadly, The Insult also seems to fall into the camp of films that people only root for to feel better about themselves. If it sounds like I’m bitter, it’s probably the Three Billboards effect taking its toll… but I digress. On paper, the concept of The Insult isn’t too outlandish: a simple disagreement escalates to violence between two warring classes due to either side unwilling to back off their case. The film attempts to paint a vivid picture of the conflict between Lebanese Christians and Palestinian refugees, but in the process it simplifies this extremely complicated issue to such unrealistic plainness. The thesis statement of this film leans on little more than, “violence is bad… on both sides”. There’s so little nuance in the delivery of its courtroom narrative and the general message is so damn generic and unchallenging. What would be truly radical would be to not manufacture such a broad moral stance and actually create an explicitly pro-Palestinian film without worrying about alienating the right viewers. But I guess that’s asking for too much. For what it’s worth, though, there is some nice camerawork here and the performances from its two leads are incredibly compelling. The rest can just go away.
Ah, now here comes one of my biggest cinematic weaknesses: slow, languid Eastern European films that are depressing as fuck. Although I much prefer Andrey Zvyagintsev’s previous film Leviathan and especially his earlier The Return, this one also pushed the right buttons for me. Set to the tune of a variety of lovely, chilling establishing shots, this one follows the sudden disappearance of a child and the terrible people who are affected by this happenstance. Even though this is, stylistically, the kind of film I tend to obsess over, this didn’t do much for me. I found myself really struggling to care about any of these characters and the narrative itself seems to spiral into plain, bland apathy very quickly. There are scenes that seems to point at some semblance of political and social commentary (especially re: the war in Ukraine and heightened significance of smartphones), but it never does anything very useful with these scenes. And although Zvyagintsev has never been the best at crafting female characters, they seem to be at their absolute worse here. I’m sure the fact that this film made me feel as empty as it did only proves its success, but with the exception of its cinematography, I didn’t find it very fulfilling in any way.
On Body and Soul (Hungary)
I felt like this particular film was only nominated as a joke. It’s easily my least favorite of the nominees in this category, and I knew it would be from the first twenty minutes or so. It’s too bad though because, once again, this is the only nominee from a female filmmaker and I wish I could support all women directors… but this just sucked! Essentially, two employees of a slaughterhouse discover that they have the same dream each night and thereby attempt to recreate a relationship of their own amongst difficult circumstances. I’ve seen this film described elsewhere as an unusual, peculiar love story of sorts, but I just found it boring and a bit distasteful really. The female lead clearly is in no position to assert her agency in a romantic relationship, certainly not with a man who is relatively neurotypical; their relationship comes off as cold, unfeeling, and just plain manipulative. I didn’t care for a single individual I was watching and the whole experience felt as pointless and sterile as its script, performances, and cinematography. It’s just a totally drab film, one that will surely be forgotten after this Oscar season ends. I will always be bitter that this shit got nominated while BPM was not even shortlisted.
The Square (Sweden)
Yep – this is the one nominee from this category that I unapologetically enjoyed and even kind of loved! Ruben Östlund’s previous film Force Majeure was such a hilariously scathing takedown of masculinity, I couldn’t wait to watch how he’d perform a similar critique of the art world. I certainly was not let down. Clocking in at nearly three hours in length, The Square throws a whole bunch of ideas like tomatoes at the screen, all strung together by a relatively flimsy plot. This film is the definition of the parts being greater than the whole, as I have so many images and moments from this film practically seared into my memory even though I tend to struggle to explain what it’s actually about. It takes so many twists and turns it becomes impossible to predict what’s about to happen next, and it remains hilarious throughout! After a while, it’s wise to just sit back and enjoy the ride – because, boy, what a ride. If it seems like I’m being vague with this description, there’s a reason. Like the previous year’s Toni Erdmann, this is kind of lengthy comedy that is best going into knowing as little as possible. This is probably the most surreal, batshit crazy satirical nosedive I’ve seen any film take and I’d watch it five more times if possible!
Up until about a month ago, I predicted that The Square would have this award in the bag. It did win the Palme d’Or, after all! Nowadays, though, it really seems like A Fantastic Woman is the new favorite for this award. Not only does it have all the obvious elements of good filmmaking that voters love (pleasant cinematography, good acting, a satisfying ending), but the social issue at its core (“transphobia is bad, guys!!”) is one that is presented as easily consumable and agreeable for a general audience. I would still be delighted if the Academy recognized an actual unique, creative film in this category – like The Square – but on the bright side, A Fantastic Woman winning would maybe give Daniela Vega the international recognition she wholeheartedly deserves. There’s a good side to everything!