Themes Of Struggle Link Foreign-Language Film Contenders

David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of AwardsLine.

Fairly or not, European films are widely considered more serious than their American counterparts. Certainly the movies eligible for the best foreign film Oscar this year fit the mold. Several make struggle a central theme, doing so in varied but consistently engaging ways.

Pablo Larrain’s No, from Chile, examines the 1988 plebiscite forced on General Augusto Pinochet, the result of which marked the beginning of the end of his dictatorship. In the film, a gifted marketing executive, Rene (Gael Garcia Bernal), must choose between middle-class comforts and his conscience—a choice complicated by his family’s ties to leftist politics. His boss (Alfredo Castro), who is firmly in league with the pro-Pinochet forces, plays Mephistopheles in this situation, reminding Rene, in no uncertain terms, that the creature comforts he enjoys are by no means guaranteed. Complicating matters are Rene’s shaky relationship with his politically engaged wife, Veronica (Antonia Zegers), from whom he is already separated. All of which leads to the film’s central question: What price bravery?

Denmark's official Oscar submission is A Royal Affair, which transports viewers to the 18th century.
Denmark’s official Oscar submission is A Royal Affair, which transports viewers to the 18th century.

Chen Kaige’s Caught in the Web, China’s contender this year, essentially flips the individual-versus-society question as it examines the struggles faced by Ye Lanqiu (Gao Yuanyuan), a mild and attractive executive assistant who is given a grim prognosis of advanced lymphatic cancer. That dire news triggers a chain of events in which the stunned secretary acts rudely on a public bus, and her behavior, captured on a young reporter’s cell phone, creates a cause célèbre, catapulting her to national vilification as “Miss Sunglasses.” This double blow of fate and ostracism is compelling, but Chen is more concerned with turning the lens around, from the individual onto Chinese society. There, he suggests, obsession with technology has reduced public empathy to everyone’s detriment.

Iceland's The Deep is based on the true story of a fisherman who survives a shipwreck.
Iceland’s The Deep is based on the true story of a fisherman who survives a shipwreck.

Based on real incident, The Deep, from Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur, relates the incredible story of a simple but happy fisherman named Gulli (Olafur Darri Olafsson) who finds himself the sole survivor of a sinking ship. Battling nature and the guilt he feels at being unable to save his crewmates, he makes an improbable bid for survival, defying long odds and swimming to safety. Yet doubts confront him once he does, with people—especially those in authority—refusing to believe his death-defying accomplishment. Then, after confirmation of his experience, he is subjected to medical tests, in hopes of finding a scientific basis for his fortitude and good fortune, so unwilling is the establishment to accept extraordinary actions from such an ordinary man.

Struggles of a strictly private nature lie at the heart of Michael Haneke’s Amour, a French-language film flying the Austrian flag. Centering almost entirely on an aged couple (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) who must suddenly come to grips with infirmity and—by implication—mortality. Though the much-lauded and singular Haneke would not seem an obvious choice for such a picture, his utter lack of sentimentality pierces the essence of what it means to grow old. Here, Riva must contend with the ravages of a stroke while Trintignant watches his life partner disintegrate before him, powerless to do much more than offer limp comforts.

Transporting viewers to 18th-century Denmark, Nikolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair uses a historical romance between King Christian VII’s wife, Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), and the king’s physician-cum-chancellor, Johann Streunsee (Mads Mikkelsen), to explore the challenges facing enlightened nobles attempting to improve a backward nation. Beneath the rustle of damask and flickering candlelight, Arcel asks eternal questions regarding a nation’s leaders and their responsibilities—questions made all the more pointed when the populace is too ignorant to embrace its own interests. This particular tale did not end well for those involved, their struggles and sacrifices made apparently in vain. But history takes the long view, which Arcel clearly appreciates in his touching coda.

Said Ould Khelifa’s Zabana! also takes a page from history to appreciate the short life of the Algerian freedom fighter Ahmed Zabana, whose execution helped bring about Algeria’s war of independence from France. And though Australia’s entry for an Oscar this year, Lore, is fictional, its German-language story is grounded in a historical subject that film lovers never seem to tire of: World War II and its consequences. In this case, the protagonist is teenage girl whose parents were ardent Nazis.

Such films as these aren’t are always shortlisted, let alone award winners, of course. Last year’s outstanding A Separation, from Iran, delved deeply into matters of perception and truth, but on an intimate scale. Still, the Academy clearly has a soft spot for foreign films that tackle big issues in which struggle figures prominently. Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009), from Germany, is a perfect example, with its implicit societal indictment. And so is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006), also from Germany. Both contend with man’s eternal battle to come to terms with both himself and the society in which he lives. And these are struggles to which we can all relate.

Q&A: Marion Cotillard on Rust and Bone

David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of AwardsLine.

Although Marion Cotillard is the perfect blend of European elegance and natural allure, she’s never been afraid to portray characters lacking those gifts. Her Oscar-winning role as chanteuse Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (2007) is a perfect example of that. But she’s also appeared in big-budget Hollywood films like Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009), Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), and, earlier this year, Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Her latest role, as Stéphanie in Jacques Audiard’s French-language Rust and Bone, finds her playing an emotionally repressed whale trainer who loses her legs in an on-the-job accident and then must recalibrate her life.

AWARDSLINE: What attracted you to the role of Stéphanie in Rust and Bone?

MARION COTILLARD: First of all, I always wanted to work with Jacques Audiard, so I was thrilled when he asked to meet with me. I expected a very special story from him because all his movies are very special, but what I didn’t expect was a real love story. And I fell in love with the character—the evolution of her, the complexity. And how she goes from anger to power is something that really moved me.

AWARDSLINE: What was it like working with Jacques Audiard?

COTILLARD: It was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had with a director. He doesn’t come on set with something very specific; it’s an exploration every day. He’s always seeking authenticity. We would try a scene many ways, but even when a take was totally different, the direction would always point the same way. And the take we finally chose was enriched by all the exploration around it.

AWARDSLINE: You were incredible—both emotionally and physically—in the scenes after Stéphanie lost her legs. How did you prepare for that?

COTILLARD: Physically, I started to watch videos of amputees. But very quickly I realized I didn’t need it. Because it just happened in her life, so I would live it with her. Emotionally, I saw it like someone who was struggling with life, like an empty shell, as someone who doesn’t know what to do with herself. And then there’s this dramatic accident. I saw it like a rebirth.

AWARDSLINE: And what about technically—what did you have to do?

COTILLARD: When I’m in the wheelchair, my legs were folded underneath me. For the scenes when I walk or am carried, I wore green socks and the rest was CGI. (Costar) Matthias Schoenaerts had to carry me in a very special way, because your center is different without legs. Also, I had to put my legs in certain positions so they could erase them easily, especially in the love scenes with Matthias and when he carries me to the sea. But that’s what we do: We try to make-believe things—first to ourselves and then to the audience. That’s acting.

AWARDSLINE: Did CGI make your job any easier?

COTILLARD: Jacques always says he wouldn’t have been able to do this movie even 10 or 15 years ago, because the evolution of the CGI was not where we are now. Those CGI guys were really amazing.

AWARDSLINE: Was it strange for you to watch the film?

COTILLARD: Yeah, it was. It’s always weird to talk about my impressions or feelings about a movie that I’m in. But I thought, This film looks amazing.

AWARDSLINE: What’s the primary difference between making French movies versus American movies?

COTILLARD: There’s a lot of technical differences. But the thing is, there’s as much difference between two French movies or two America movies—because every story is different, every director is different.

AWARDSLINE: You won the Oscar in 2008 for La Vie en Rose. How has that affected your career both internationally and in America?

COTILLARD: It opened the doors of American cinema to me. I had never dreamt of doing American movies, although I didn’t know whether it was impossible or possible. So that changed things. American projects came my way, and amazing directors wanted to work with me.

AWARDSLINE: Did you speak English before you started working in America?

COTILLARD: I did, but my English was very poor. My English really improved for Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, because I worked on it every day for six months.

AWARDSLINE: You’ve starred in some big Hollywood pictures. What’s their appeal for you?

COTILLARD: Sometimes when I meet the directors of very big blockbusters, I feel that for them making a movie is not a question of life and death—there’s not a deep need to be creative. Christopher Nolan is not part of that world. He is a real artist. So it’s a very big difference. And Michael Mann is a genius.

AWARDSLINE: Do you get different things as an actor from bigger versus smaller films, or do you find that acting is acting, regardless of budget?

COTILLARD: Oh, yeah, it’s exactly the same process. Each experience is unique. But my commitment to a project is t