To the shock and dismay of cinephiles across the Western world, France has chosen its International Film Oscar submission and it is not Céline Sciamma’s acclaimed “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Instead, as many insiders suspected, the French committee selected Ladj Ly’s “Les Miserables.” But before you get in an uproar over what you might believe is an omission of disastrious proportions, there are a number of factors at play in the decision.
Granted, while “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” has been a critical darling (93 on Metacritic) it hasn’t had the social impact that Lj’s “Les Miserables” has had in France itself (71 on metacritic). Ly’s melodrama centers on the almost never-ending conflict between law enforcement and minority residents in some of Paris’ poorest neighborhoods. From a socio-political viewpoint, the film is a rallying cry and numerous notable members of the French filmmaking community including Adele Exarchopoulos, Omar Sy, Vincent Cassel, Mouloud Achour and Romain Gavras, among others, voiced their support publicly for “Les Miserables'” candidacy. It often gets lost in the United States, but in many nations the Oscar submission is a very big deal. Winning this category is a source of pride for their film industry and often these selections make the national news (France even announces a shortlist for its submission). Despite “Portrait” having a female director and Lesbian storyline, “Les Miserables” is, arguably, seen as the more progressive selection to many in France. Especially as it’s the first time France has ever submitted a film from a black filmmaker.
Moreover, while both films left Cannes with individual honors, Sciamma won Best Screenplay for “Portrait” while Ly took the Jury Prize for “Les Miserables,” anyone who has seen both films can recognize that the latter has a better chance of making the shortlist for the International Film Oscar (formerly Foreign Language Film) than the former. “Portait” is an emmaculate period film, but, at times, is somewhat mannered in its excution. For the most part, “Les Miserables” plays more like a cop procedural with bits of humor and drama thrown in the mix (we’re not saying it’s the “Green Book” of French suburban police dramas, but we’re not not saying it either).
It should also be noted that despite the Academy’s attempts to expand the voting pool in the first round selection process, a majority of the participants are still retired or older members with a significant amount of time on their hands. That’s one reason why AMPAS has expanded the shortlist from nine to 10 contenders this season and still has the three committee saves. Any competiting consultant would tell you “Portrait” would like have be a committee save and that can get dicey if there are too many films that “need” that save. “Les Miserables” chances of making the second round on the popular vote are much, much higher.
Of course, many would argue that both “Portrait” and “Les Miserables” would make it through both rounds and earn an International Film Oscar nod. France, however, hasn’t earned a nomination in this category since “Mustang” in 2016 and only twice over the past decade. That’s a bit of a dry spell a nation who believes they are the pinnacle of cinematic excellence and holds a record 39 nominations in the category.
The announcement is also very good news for “Les Miserables'” U.S. distributor, Amazon Studios, who can likely make additional art house coin if the film earns an Oscar nomination and a disappointing result for NEON, who is releasing “Portrait” in December. Don’t cry too long for NEON, however, they are releasing the frontrunner in this category and potential Best Picture nominee, South Korea’s “Parasite.” Amazon also has Brazil’s submission, potential category crasher “The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão,” on its slate.
Other International Film contenders this season include Spain’s “Pain & Glory,” Senegal’s “Atlantics,” Palestine’s “It Must Be Heaven,” Romania’s “The Whistlers,” Norway’s “Our Stealing Horses,” Germany’s “System Crashers” and Russia’s “Beanpole,” among others.