Anatomy of a Fail: Inside France’s Dysfunctional Oscar Committee

By now, even the most hardcore fans of French cuisine and “Chocolat” star Juliette Binoche can agree that Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall” — rather than Tran Anh Hung’s “The Taste of Things” — was the one movie that could have given France its first Oscar win for best international feature in over 30 years, since Régis Wargnier’s “Indochine.”

Over the last three decades, a number of French movies have earned Oscar recognition, but none have been the official French Oscar submission. Michael Haneke’s “Amour” earned five Oscar noms in 2013 and even won the best foreign-language Oscar but it represented Austria. A year before, “The Artist,” a French-directed and produced silent movie, won five Oscars out of 10 nominations, including best picture. But the movie had come out in theaters in October, past the former Sept. 30 deadline (which has since then been extended in France) to submit films for the foreign-language race so it wasn’t eligible.

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“Anatomy of a Fall,” on the other hand, was snubbed by France’s Oscar committee, even though it was eligible for that category. While it contains substantial English dialogue and stars German actor Sandra Huller, almost 60% of the film is in French, qualifying for finance subsidies only available to French-language films. The movie went on to earn seven BAFTA nominations and five Oscar noms, including one for director Triet, after winning a pair of Golden Globes. France’s official Oscar entry, “The Taste of Things,” meanwhile, has fallen out of contention after being Oscar-shortlisted last month.

The writing has actually been on the wall ever since “Anatomy of a Fall” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May and went on to thrive in the fall festival circuit, playing to packed houses at Telluride, Toronto and New York film festivals. Distributors Gaumont in France and IFC Films in the U.S. attempted to drum up excitement for “The Taste of Things,” but it never managed to cook up the same level of enthusiasm as “Anatomy of a Fall.” The movie’s main selling point, Binoche, did lots of press and influencer events, but she was a no-show at Telluride, where it was a late addition, and at the New York Film Fest.

By the time the French Oscar committee, comprised of seven film professionals, got together to pick their candidate among the five films shortlisted on Sept. 21, “Anatomy of a Fall” had not only been widely embraced by critics and audiences. It had also been in theaters in France for nearly a month and was considered the highest grossing French Palme d’Or since “Blue is the Warmest Color” in 2013. It was one of the rare movies which checked all the boxes for a strong Oscar entry: not only was it a critical darling that resonates with wide audiences, it’s distributed by Neon, which shepherded “Parasite” to a best picture win.

So why did it get passed over by “The Taste of Things” which, aside from winning Cannes’ best director prize for Hung and garnering some warm reviews in U.S. outlets, wasn’t as high profile as “Anatomy of a Fall” and hadn’t even come out in theaters in France?

“The Taste of Things” had the right ingredients, at least on paper, to appear as the most appetizing choice to four members of the seven-people committee in charge of selecting the French entry. A culinary romance reuniting former real-life lovers Binoche and Benoit Magimel, the film has a highly likable filmmaker, Hung, who made history in 1993 as the first Oscar-nominated Vietnamese director of “The Scent of Green Papaya.” Comparisons were also made with another 19th-century culinary film, “Babette’s Feast,” which won an Oscar in 1987.

“Some people on the committee who voted for ‘The Taste of Things’ have kept the image of voters for that category as older, nostalgic folks, and have not taken into account the fact that Oscar voters have changed; they’re younger and more diverse than they used to be. They like to be challenged,” says an industry source close to the committee.

Triet is anything but a safe choice, even if her film “Anatomy of a Fall” isn’t particularly controversial. In France, she’s known as an unfiltered and slightly eccentric intellectual. She uttered “putain,” the French word for fuck, multiple times on the stage of the Lumiere Awards as she searched for her acceptance speech Monday night. Her modern brand of feminism appeals to a younger generation, but irks some of France’s older guard. It’s a factor which may have come into play with France’s Oscar committee.

France is known for separating the art from the artist in the name of freedom of expression, but it appears that Triet wasn’t granted that privilege. Her politically-charged speech at Cannes when she received the Palme d’Or ruffled feathers in high places and was seen as the epitome of rudeness. Shouldn’t a female director who wins the Palme d’Or — only the third in the 76-year history of the festival — act grateful, some people asked?

Instead, she lashed out at the “neo-liberal” government and said it was “breaking down the French model cultural exception.” She soon found herself in the middle of a backlash that went on for weeks, dominating the media. Although the film was ultimately a success at the box office, Triet made enemies inside and out of the film world and was criticized for having partly financed “Anatomy of a Fall” with subsidy money from the same government that she criticized on Cannes’ stage. She later said she had not realized the impact that her speech would have.

The French Oscar committee has missed opportunities before — for instance, when it picked Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winning body-horror movie “Titane” over Audrey Diwan’s Venice prizewinning abortion drama “Happening” in 2021. While “Titane” didn’t get nominated, “Happening” had considerable momentum because it was released in the U.S. as the Supreme Court voted to strike down the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. The French board’s decision that year caused such a scandal that it led to an overhaul of the commission, prompting the exit of permanent members such as Cannes Film Festival boss Thierry Fremaux and then-Cesar Académie president Veronique Cayla, while the president of Unifrance, the French film and TV org (currently Gilles Pelisson), and the president of the French Film Board (CNC), Dominique Boutonnat, were allowed to stay but as a non-voting members.

This year’s committee, which ended up clashing violently over the final decision, according to several insiders, included former Lionsgate boss Patrick Wachsberger, Charles Gillibert, the producer of “Annette,” Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat, as well as directors Olivier Assayas (“Carlos”) and Mounia Meddour (“Papicha”), and sales agents Sabine Chemaly and Tanja Meissner. The vote came down to 4-3 split but then one person who had voted for “The Taste of Things” changed their mind and asked for a second vote which was turned down, according to an insider.

The CNC says it has gone to great lengths to limit potential conflicts of interest and include producers and filmmakers who have some knowledge of the U.S. market. But the French film industry is like a small village where a handful of talent agents and studios pull all the strings and can easily influence decisions.

Several people, including Gillibert and “Anatomy of a Fall” producer David Thion, argue that one way to improve the system and prompt a fairer decision process would be to expand the committee to many more members, potentially a mix of French voters for the Oscars, Golden Globes and BAFTAs, and put in place a point system that would take into account festival selections, reviews and the track record of the U.S. distributor, and have the company commit to a minimum spend for P&A and release. Gillibert says the decision can’t come down to people’s personal tastes, professional interests and/or affinity with filmmakers, which is why “it’s crucial to make it as objective as possible” with a much larger pool of members. “It’s much harder to influence 15 people than seven,” he says.

Pelisson said he predicts that the “CNC will look to bring changes to the committee” for next year. “The National Film Board has reformed the Oscar committee before and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them doing it again,” he says. “It’s an ongoing process.”

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