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What Are the European Film Awards Good For?

What Are the European Film Awards Good For?

“We all know why they exist,” sighed Agnès Varda, clutching her Lifetime Achievement trophy on stage at Riga’s National Opera house on Saturday evening. By “they” she meant cinema prizes in the wider sense, including the European Film Awards, handed out for the 27th time this year by the European Film Academy.

Everyone present under the theater’s ornately gilded ceiling, in the capital of Baltic republic Latvia, knew exactly what the sprightly, 86-year-old grande dame of European cinema was getting at: the inherent absurdity of comparing one film against another, one performance against another, one editing-job against another and so on, all for the sake of publicity and the preservation of cinema’s profile both in the public eye and in the wider cultural sphere.

READ MORE: European Film Awards Go to ‘Ida,’ Timothy Spall, Marion Cotillard

But in the narrower sense, the purpose of the European Film Awards remains, for many, somewhat elusive. They remain of limited interest even for the more avid moviegoers in this educated, affluent, cinema-loving continent — it’s unusual to spot EFA “laurels” on film-posters or DVD boxes. And, nearly three decades after their inception, they remain primarily an insiders’, industry-oriented affair. In this regard, they echo the Academy itself, an august body founded in 1988 as part of Berlin’s tenure as a European Capital of Culture, under the illustrious (if somewhat hands-off) presidency of Ingmar Bergman. 

Mainly financed by a small handful of official German cultural organizations, the Academy alternates its awards ceremonies between Berlin and other European cities: Tallinn (Estonia) in 2010, Valletta (Malta) in 2012, and this year Riga, the architecturally striking, Scandinavian/Germanic city whose prime position on the chilly Baltic Sea made it the Soviet Union’s biggest port. 

The practice of urbane continent-hopping gives the EFAs a certain “Eurovision Song Contest” air — not that the awards come close to matching the venerable, unapologetically cheesy music-competition’s saturation levels of small-screen exposure across the continent. While viewable by live-stream on the European Film Academy’s website, this year the awards were only screened live in two countries: Latvia itself and, for reasons obscure, Portugal. 

There was, after all, no Portuguese representation for any of the major categories this year. Pedro Costa’s “Horse Money” evidently was reckoned too esoteric for the 50-strong long-list of non-fiction films from which the vast bulk of nominees are drawn — and it regrettably excluded Jean-Charles Hue’s “Eat Your Bones,” Luis Miñarro’s “Falling Star,” and Guillaume Nicloux’s “The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq.”

Further frustrations: Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner” made the cut for Best Actor, but nowhere else–hard to see how the voters preferred Paolo Virzi (“Human Capital”) for Best Director, until one remembers that the Italian membership ranks as the Academy’s third-largest. Ukraine’s brilliant “The Tribe,” meanwhile, was nominated only for the debutants’ “Discovery” Award–a section (full disclosure!) upon whose selection-panel I served–and was somehow overlooked for the Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay shortlists. 

But to get back to the pressing matter of tube exposure: in Germany a highlights program was screened in a midnight slot the following day; countries such as France, Greece, the Netherlands and Bulgaria scheduled similar packages for later in the same week. In the UK, Spain, Scandinavia (Norway/Sweden/Finland/Denmark) and Italy, however: zilch. A major factor: the paucity of “headline” stars attending, itself a by-product of the fact that there are — UK, France and Spain apart — very few European actors of genuinely international appeal (Mads Mikkelsen and various Skarsgards notwithstanding.) 

Polish audiences, meanwhile, will have until December 20th to see Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” — officially a Polish-Danish co-production but in subject matter, crew and atmosphere as Polski as bison-grass vodka — sweep the board with five prizes: Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay (Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz), Cinematography (Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski), and the online-voted People’s Choice Award. The biggest haul since 2010, when “The Ghost Writer” cleaned up with half a dozen awards, the dominance of “Ida” was such that its only loss came in Best Actress, where the nomination of both co-leads Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska probably enabled the triumph of “Two Days One Night” star Marion Cotillard (the only winner not present to pick up the gong in person.)

The near-unstoppable “Ida” sweep, which inexorably rendered the ceremony a slightly flat affair, wasn’t expected by many prognosticators, myself included. On Saturday morning I’d priced up the seven major categories for website Jigsaw Lounge, and while I had “Ida” as the (narrow) favorite for Film and Director, I predicted “Winter Sleep” for Screenplay and wouldn’t have been surprised if both Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan” and Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure,” for all their fundamental structural deficiencies, had picked up a prize or two.

As it was, of the “big four,” three went home empty-handed — the biggest surprise of the evening, with the possible exception of “Master of the Universe” eclipsing 2013 Venice Golden Lion laureate “Sacro GRA” (plus recent IDFA champ “Of Men and War” and the much-touted “We Come as Friends”). True, the titanic Timothy Spall of “Mr. Turner” edged out Brendan Gleeson (“Calvary”) for Best Actor, but the fact that the former was beamingly present in Riga — granted a front-row seat next to Academy head-honcho Wim Wenders and guests-of-honor Varda and Liv Ullmann — and Gleeson elsewhere was, in horse-racing parlance, “a tip in itself.”

The reactions to the glory-night for “Ida” pointed up one concrete purpose and function of the EFAs: their role in clarifying the picture for the Foreign Language Oscar race. In 2012, “Amour” won Best Film and three other gongs; in 2013, the same feat was pulled off by “The Great Beauty”; both landed the Academy Award the following February. The sweep for “Ida” came hot on the heels of its citation as best foreign film by both the New York and Los Angeles critics’ groups, positioning this somewhat austere, black-and-white 1960s-set road-movie as the “front runner” in the “race.” But what a shame if too much was made of the EFA-Oscar connection, if the European prizes became just another factor in the wall of “precursor” noise. 

It’s true, however, that the EFAs have struggled to develop a coherent identity over the years — they were originally known as the Felixes, a name which, regardless of its actual derivation, sounded like an Odd Couple nudge in the Oscars’ direction. Now they don’t have any name at all, though the precedent of the Emmy (derived from “immy”, itself a contraction of “image orthoticon tube”) would suggest “Eva.”

Or what about the Agnes, in honor of Ms. Varda, whose podium speech bemoaning the lack of female representation among the nominees — in the current decade, the only woman nominated for EFA’s Best Director has been Susanne Bier (for “A Better World”) in 2012–was much discussed in the politely energetic nearby after-party conducted under the Latvian Society’s high ceilings. Naming the trophy the “Agnes” would serve to emphasize the varied and rich history of European cinema, something about which the Academy can be surprisingly neglectful. 

Take the fact that Sergei Eisenstein, one of the very few undisputed geniuses in cinema history, was born in Riga. His father designed several pleasingly bizarre apartment buildings on Albert Street, in the art nouveau style for which Europe’s joint 2014 Capital of Culture is renowned. But while Jean Vigo got a nice little “shout out” from Steve McQueen, recipient of the oddly-titled European Achievement in World Cinema Award, the words “Sergei Eisenstein” were never once spoken on stage. 

Neither was his chubby-cheeked, tousle-haired visage — nor images from his groundbreaking films such as “Battleship Potemkin,” “October” and “Ivan the Terrible” — projected on the gleaming electronic display which formed its backdrop. It’s true that the director only actually lived in Riga until the age of five, and Wenders did cite the city’s Eisenstein connection in the Awards’ official brochure. Better than nothing, one might argue. But only by properly acknowledging, celebrating and ballyhooing European cinema’s past can its present be fully appreciated, and can its future be confidently anticipated. Watch this space.

READ MORE: How the Bleak Drama ‘Ida’ Channels Ingmar Bergman Movies

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