France surprises by selecting ‘Renoir’ for foreign Oscar race

Every year, during the busy submissions stage for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, France’s selection is among the most curiously anticipated — if only because they annually have such a surfeit of plausible contenders. This year, there was particular intrigue surrounding their choice — since the film that would otherwise have been the likeliest pick, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or winner “Blue is the Warmest Color,” was ineligible.

What would they choose instead? The options were numerous, with none more obvious than the other. Francois Ozon’s Cesar-nominated “In the House,” or his Cannes contender “Young and Beautiful?” Perky period romcom “Populaire?” Olivier Assayas’ Venice prizewinner “Something in the Air?” Juliette Binoche in “Camille Claudel 1915?” Likely animated Oscar contender “Ernest and Celestine?” The combined hotness of Tahar Rahim and Lea Seydoux in “Grand Central?”

None of those, as it turns out. Instead, France is pinning its Oscar hopes on Gilles Bourdos’ pretty, somewhat floaty artist biopic “Renoir.”

The choice will come as a surprise to many — particularly the many pundits who assumed the country’s second-biggest Cannes hit, Asghar Farhadi’s modern melodrama “The Past,” would get the nod. As I said before, however, that otherwise Academy-friendly film always had a significant hurdle to overcome: the French prefer to submit films by their own directors, and as respected as Iranian import Farhadi (who won the Oscar for Iran two years ago) is, they clearly weren’t about the make him the first non-French filmmaker to represent the country at the awards in 36 years. (The last was Israeli-born Moshe Mizrahi, who won for “Madame Rosa” in 1977.)

Don’t look for Farhadi’s home country to enter him, either, given that the film isn’t a sufficiently Iranian production to pass muster — Sony Classics’ awards hopes for the film will now be concentrated on Cannes winner Berenice Bejo for Best Actress.

The Frencher-than-French “Renoir,” meanwhile, isn’t proving a very popular selection so far on the Twitterverse, with French and English-speaking critics alike complaining that the country’s selection committee has picked the softest option. (Well, maybe not: I hear talk that “Populaire” was also much-favored by the committee, and that’d have been an even softer one.) The seven-member committee, incidentally, had a fair bit of cred this year: Oscar-nominated actress Isabelle Adjani, Palme d’Or winner Laurent Cantet and Cannes festival director Thierry Fremaux are among those responsible for the choice.

Of course, this is nothing new from France — the soft option also won out last year, when they picked crowd-pleasing buddy comedy “The Intouchables” over more sophisticated or auteur-flavored fare, include Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone.” It was a savvily Cademy-minded choice, though it didn’t entirely pay off: the hit film made the penultimate nine-film shortlist, but was a shock absentee from the final nominees.  

Once more, I think the committee has chosen somewhat tactically here. “Renoir,” which premiered in Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year and opened Stateside way back in March, may not have received an overwhelming critical response either at home or abroad, but its gentle, picturesque charms are ones I can imagine appealing to older voters in the Academy. (It’ll be interesting to see how the film, a January release at home, fares in this year’s Cesar nominations.) It’s a generation-crossing story of sorts, centered on the relationship between celebrated Impressionist painter Pierre-August and his son Jean — the future filmmaking legend — as the latter returns home to recover from a WWI injury.

It’s low-incident stuff, but I had more time for it than some of my colleagues did: there’s an appealingly wistfulness to its symbolic study of one artform making way for another, and it’s exquisitely shot, in suitably dappled, Renoir-esque light, by the marvelous Mark Lee. It wouldn’t be the first middlebrow biopic to catch the Academy’s eye, and it certainly wouldn’t be the worst.  

Portugal, meanwhile, has picked a French co-production to represent them this year. Napoleonic war epic “Lines of Wellington” is, to some extent, the last film by the late, prolific Chilean auteur Raul Ruiz (“Mysteries of Lisbon”). He was in preparations for the film when he passed away in 2011; it was completed by his widow, Valeria Sarmiento, and premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival to a muted response.

Still, it’s not too hard to imagine to the Academy warming to this high-end Europudding, with its sprawling historical narrative and star-studded cast. John Malkovich plays the titular Duke of Wellington, leading Anglo-Portuguese forces in a wearying battle against Napoleon during the Peninsular War in 1810, while the supporting cast includes Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Mathieu Amalric, Marisa Paredes, Elsa Zylberstein and Michel Piccoli, some of them in mere cameos. Of course, the recognizability factor only goes so far with the Academy if your film is deemed too stodgy: even the presence of Christian Bale couldn’t get voters on board with China’s “The Flowers of War” two years ago. So we’ll wait to hear how it plays.

Finally, Pakistan returns to the Oscar race, exactly 50 years after they last submitted a film, with immigration comedy “Zinda Bhaag.” The film focuses on three young men who yearn to leave Lahore for the West and “succeed in ways they least expected,” to use the film’s own logline. It hasn’t even opened in Pakistan yet, so I can’t glean much more than the fact that veteran Indian star Naseeruddin Shah is in the cast. Still, the submission — after years of Pakistan sitting apart from the world cinema scene — is perhaps more significant than the film itself. Selection committee chair Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy said, “I feel proud that today we are taking a small step towards recognizing our own filmmakers. ‘Zinda Bhaag’ is proof of the fact that sheer will, passion and talent can achieve incredible feats.”

Check out the updated submissions list and chart here.