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Culture

A Coquette, a War and a Basket-case

Oscar’s annual curtsy to European cinema graces three continental nominees for best "foreign-language film”.

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Audrey Tautou in a scene from Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 'Amelie'

It’s not the pride that counts, it’s the money. If your Academy Award happens to fill you with pride, too, well then all the better.

But for film producers from non-English speaking countries, an Oscar for "best foreign-language film" is most of all an invitation to the North American marketplace, the vast profits winnable there, and the exclusive club of foreign directors who can pick projects in Hollywood.

Just as American producers look for success in Europe and Asia – and even tailor their plots (read "dumb-down and add explosions") to please cross-cultural audiences – European producers wonder how to thrill the American movie-goer.

An Oscar can make a phenomenon out of a small, even unnoticed, picture. That’s what Hollywood’s formidable marketing machine is all about. Just ask the Italian producer Roberto Benigni. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ recognition of his 1998 film Life is Beautiful" turned the film, already a success, into a box-office juggernaut.

Truth be told, being European is best, as far as the Academy is concerned, though politically the bias would be disgracious to admit. Ang Lee’s Chinese production "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" won in 2000, but almost all the previous awards have gone to Europe and the former Soviet Union.

In 1947, the first foreign-language Oscar went to "Shoe-Shine", an Italian production. Since then, just six non-European films have won, including Lee’s. Not once has India’s giant Bombay-based "Bollywood" industry scored.

Of the category’s six nominees this year, three are European. They tell the tales of a Parisian coquette, a Balkan war and a Norwegian basket-case.

Amélie

The coquette is perhaps most attractive. A roaring success in France, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s "Amélie" opened in the United States in November. Though hit with critics, it’s fully French dialogue and idiosyncratic storytelling of a mischievous Parisian girl has only won over limited American audiences.

The film shows the imagination-enhanced life of Amélie – a universe of metaphor, prank and reverie staged in an idealised Paris, constructed of remarkably detailed sets and computer-generated art.

Oscar Film Award

Oscar Film Award

The girl’s wit proves both her peculiar charm and her singular limitation, as the trait that attracts people to her yet prevents them from drawing too close. One part inspiration, one part modern morality tale.

No Man’s Land

Bosnian director Danis Tanovic’s film is billed as a comedy. And it is, sort of – in the sense that when human conflict proves too awful and absurd, our only options are to live or die by chance, or to laugh.

"No Man’s Land", set between Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Muslim lines during the civil war that ripped the country apart in the early 1990s, is a comedy of errors, miscommunication and human fallibility. It was filmed in neighbouring Slovenia perhaps because Bosnia itself remains too unstable to bear additional drama on top of its real, ongoing story.

A story of semi-innocent sinners caught in a brutal clash further complicated by an idealistic intervention by "soft" United Nations bureaucrats, the film shows stupid human selfishness mucking up what should be a beautiful summer day in a mountain valley.

"I remember that strange feeling when war started in Bosnia, when I would see a black bullet hole in a building or a crater made by a shell in a field," said Tanovic. "The disharmony was a kind of a visual shock. It turned me cold and left me feeling bitter and helpless."

His film lets the audience in on this feeling.

Elling

The least likely of the three European nominees is "Elling", a Norwegian film about the misadventures of a man fresh out of Brøynes Psychiatric Clinic.

It’s taken Norway by storm. But in a country of 4.5 million people, cinema causes small storms. Director Petter Næss’ film has had 800,000 viewers.

Elling, the main character, has trouble returning to life outside the clinic – a life that had driven him to the clinic in the first place. He vomits in reaction to Norwegian contemporary poetry and finds it terrifying to walk from one side of a restaurant to another. But situations arise that force Elling and his awkward roommate Kjell to face it with courage.

Per Christian Ellefsen, the lead actor, won the Nordic "Amanda" best actor prize for his efforts, in 2001.

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