France’s Submission for the Best International Feature Film Oscar Could Be a Game-Changer

France has long resisted advancing female filmmakers and their work to the Oscars, but a retrofitted committee and culture might offer a corrective.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
"Portrait of a Lady on Fire"

The foreign language Oscar has a new name — Best International Feature Film — after being known as “Best Foreign Language Film” since 1956, and the ever-evolving category might be getting a new look when it comes to its contenders. Last year, 87 countries vied for nine shortlist slots (there will be 10 in 2020) and the final five Oscar nominations (last year, “Roma” picked up the honor). While the rules for submission have morphed slightly over the years, as it stands, each country may submit one film as long as it’s not primarily in English, and notoriously, local cultural politics tend to dictate that choice. (Notably, Israel submits their Ophir Award for Best Picture.)

This year, all eyes are on France, as the country has changed up its Oscar submission process in hopes of picking a winner after striking out for over two decades (and enduring three years in a row without even making it to the final five nominees). While France has nabbed more foreign-language Oscar nominations (39) than any other country, and has won nine (Italy boasts 14), the country hasn’t won an Oscar since “Indochine” in 1992, and hasn’t scored a nomination since “Mustang” in 2015.

The French Ministry of Culture (along with the CNC, the National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image) has changed things up for its 2020 submission, expanding the selection committee from seven members to nine, adding one more “film professional” (the committee will now include two filmmakers, two producers, and two international sellers) to a group that also includes a delegate from the Cannes Film Festival, the President of the César, and the President of Unifrance.

France faces unprecedented pressure to submit a female filmmaker. While the country has picked films directed by women before — including its last nominee, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s “Mustang” — many of the country’s most notable filmmaking icons (and their best films) were never selected for the honor. That list includes such luminaries as Claire Denis, Mia Hansen-Love, and even the late Agnes Varda. No woman has ever won the Oscar for the country. But will a recent push towards parity be reflected by this year’s Oscar submission? While France has long resisted advancing female filmmakers and their work when it comes to the Oscar stage, their retrofitted committee might offer a necessary corrective.

The 2020 committee boasts a strong complement of women, including producers Rosalie Varda (yes, Agnes’ daughter) and Jean Bréhat, sales agents Agathe Valentin and Muriel Sauzay, directors Danièle Thompson and Pierre Salvadori, plus Cannes director Thierry Frémaux, UniFrance president Serge Toubiana, and Cesar president Alain Terzian. The commission meets twice before picking its final candidate, and is expected to announce its final submission this Friday.

The group’s current shortlist of three includes two films directed by women, and a third from another rarity in the French milieu: a person of color. (Elsewhere, Cannes prize-winner Mati Diop’s “Atlantics,” once rumored as part of the pack, is expected to be Senegal’s submission.) The three shortlist contenders include two Cannes Competition winners, Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and documentary filmmaker Ladj Ly’s fiction debut, “Les Miserables,” plus Alice Winocour’s Toronto International Film Festival world premiere “Proxima,” starring Eva Green as an astronaut. Sciamma picked up both the Queer Palm (she is the first woman to do so) and the Best Screenplay award at Cannes, while Ly won the Jury Prize. Winocour’s sci-fi drama earned an honorable mention from the TIFF Platform Prize jury.

“Proxima”Vertical Entertainment

The conversation around this year’s submission has been accelerated by broader conversations around the support for women directors in France. Issues of sexism and a lack of gender parity have long dogged France’s film world, but recent pushes forward have begun to alter a culture that paradoxically honors men more consistently than women and has fostered some of the world’s greatest female filmmakers. After years of outcry regarding its lack of female filmmakers in its starry competition section, this year’s Cannes Film Festival was the first to take place after Frémaux signed the 5050×2020 gender-parity pledge. Frémaux’s decision to sign the pledge came after 82 of the film industry’s biggest names stood in protest on the red carpet during the 2018 festival.

The so-called “parity pledge” does not require gender parity in programming, instead calling for other other systemic changes that could help alleviate gender-based blindspots. Despite some initial resistance in its industry, France has made strides towards leveling the filmmaking playing field. In September of 2018, the country announced a new initiative centered on gender parity, the first of its kind launched in Europe. As Screen reported, the new measure utilizes an eight-point system, awarding points if the director and other major behind-the-scenes figures such as the cinematographers were female. Productions that achieved four points or more would be eligible for as much as a 15% bonus off its state-allocated funds.

In announcing the measure, French Minister of Culture Françoise Nyssen said, “I believe in financial incentives. When things do not change on their own, or too slowly, it’s up to us to change them.” Nyssen added that the points-based initiative would remain in place until parity had been achieved. The plan went into effect earlier this year, and has so far impacted about 20 new productions.

Tellingly, both Sciamma and Winocour have been outspoken about gender parity in the past: Sciamma co-founded the parity-focused 50/50 Collective, and Winocour is also an active member, along with other female French filmmakers like Justine Triet. The duo haven’t just made films from distinctly feminine perspectives and about compelling female subjects (from Sciamma’s eighteenth-century tale of forbidden love to Winocour’s ambitious sci-fi drama); they’ve also harnessed those energies to evolve their country’s film culture from the inside.

France, it seems, may finally be catching up with its own filmmakers’ ambitions.

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