Eye on Canada: The Best Foreign Language Film Oscar Race at TIFF 2013

The race is on!
Sophie Desmarais plays Sarah in Sarah Prefers to Run, an eOne Films release
This week’s announcement of the Canadian films at TIFF leaves much to anticipate. New films by Bruce McDonald (The Husband), Ingrid Veninger (The Animal Project), Terry Miles (Cinemanovels), Jennifer Baichwal (Watermark), and Peter Stebbins (Empire of Dirt) all sound like good reasons to head over to the festival’s website and add a ticket package of “The Canadian” to one’s TIFF shopping cart. There’s also a double-dose of Denis Villeneuve, which probably has many people excited. His double-header of Prisoners and Enemy might also have many Canadian filmmakers excited because Villeneuve’s pair of Anglophone films means that the recent Oscar nominee for Incendies won’t be competing with his fellow Quebecers for the coveted spot as Canada’s Oscar contender.

Canada’s annual race for Best Foreign Language Film seems to use the Toronto International Film Festival as a starting ground with more fervour as the years go by. If you’ll recall from last year’s post, the correlation between a win at TIFF and an Oscar submission status is roughly fifty percent for Canuck contenders. (That includes English language winners.) Moreover, there is still only one film of the past decade or so to represent Canada without playing Toronto: 2008’s The Necessities of Life (Ce qu’il faut pour vivre). The match up didn’t occur last year when Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways won the City of Toronto + Canada Goose Award for Best Canadian Film, but lost the official submission to Rebelle. (Laurence Anyways came close, as it was a finalist for the slot alongside Rebelle and Camion.) Rebelle seemed like a foregone conclusion going into the festival, though, and there wasn’t much hope that Dolan’s three-hour sex change pic would align with Academy tastes. Rebelle proved to be the correct choice and went on to be nominated come January. (It lost to Amour.)

Canada has high expectations going in to this year’s Oscar race since it holds one of the best batting averages among the Foreign Language Film nations. Canada actually leads the tally of nominations in the category over the past decade, as it ties Germany for five nominations across the last ten years: Rebelle in 2012, Monsieur Lazhar in 2011, Incendies in 2010, Water in 2006, and Oscar winner The Barbarian Invasions in 2003. That’s pretty good, I think. What film could add to the standing and bring Canada its fourth consecutive nomination?

Oscar rules state that the submitted film must “be first released in the country submitting it no earlier than October 1, 2012, and no later than September 30, 2013.” The films thus far in 2013 haven’t really been worthy of a submission, although the selection committee could choose the middle-brow box office hit Louis Cyr, which doesn’t seem likely. This date range means that a few stragglers from last year could also be selected, although the only eligible films worthy of the title, All That You Possess and Alphée of the Stars, might not have much to gain at this point since they’re through theatrical exhibition. The wild card might be Denis Côté’s Berlin hit Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, which isn’t playing Toronto but opens theatrically during the festival on September 6. Readers need not be too caught up on release dates, though, since films can be moved around to ensure eligibility. 2011’s Canuck contender Monsieur Lazhar, for example, enjoyed a one-week qualifying run in Edmonton before opening in Quebec in late October and in the ROC in early 2012.

The likelihood, however, is that the contender is lying somewhere in the TIFF programme. Barring sleeper hit status, Catherine Martin’s Une jeune fille and Richie Mehta’s Siddarth could find themselves lost among the other films in since they don’t have Canadian distribution, although the latter film premieres in the Venice Days section of the Venice Film Festival, which could bring it some attention at Toronto. (It helps if there’s someone pushing the film both at the festival and afterwards.) Five films with distribution stand out as strong possibilities, given their status in the festival line-up, the pedigree of their filmmakers, or their buzz going into Toronto. The five films that seem most worthwhile for keeping an eye on Canada are:

Tom at the Farm (Tom à la ferme)

Photo courtesy Les films Séville
Dir. Xavier Dolan
Programme: Special Presentations (North American Premiere)
Synopsis: This latest work from Canada’s endlessly inventive and provocative Xavier Dolan (J'ai tué ma mere, Laurence Anyways) follows a grief-stricken man who visits his dead lover’s parents — only to discover that they were unaware of their son’s sexual orientation.
Cast: Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lise Roy, Evelyne Brochu.
Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm is up first simply because it seems like the most logical first choice. As mentioned previously, Dolan is probably due for another chance to represent Canada since he first did so with his debut film I Killed My Mother in 2009. Dolan has only gained in popularity since Mother, both in Canada and abroad, thanks to his subsequent films Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways, plus the long-delayed American theatrical release of Mother this year.

Tom at the Farm sounds like a significant departure for Dolan. Not only is the film Dolan’s first adaptation, but source author/playwright Michel Marc Bouchard also shares a screenplay credit with Dolan, which marks the director’s first collaboration on a major credit. I’ve admired Dolan’s previous films, but they’ve all suffered from an element of self-indulgence, so perhaps working with a peer might keep the film more balanced. Tom at the Farm also notes a generic leap for Dolan, as the director’s signature reflection on queer-themed sexual awakening tackles the realm of the psychological thriller this time around. How Dolan’s stylish flair works with this different tone could be very impressive, or it could be a letdown for hard-core fans if he changes gears. There’s no denying the ambition of Dolan’s oeuvre, though, and the style of Tom at the Farm is bound to be impressive if one considers the additional talents teaming up with Dolan: cinematographer André Turpin (Incendies) and composer Gabriel Yared (The English Patient), plus a cast that includes veteran actress Lise Roy (The Barbarian Invasions) and TIFF Rising Star Evelyne Brochu (Café de flore, Inch ‘Allah).

Tom also marks a significant fourth work for Dolan since it’s the first of his films not to premiere at Cannes. The film, a Canada/France co-production, opens in competition at Venice, whereas Dolan’s three previous films debuted outside the main programme on the Croisette, before coming to Toronto. It’s a step up, for sure, and a strong indication of Canada’s hottest young filmmaker’s rising esteem in the industry. Tom doesn’t have American distribution yet, although that’s bound to come after Venice and TIFF. It also doesn’t have a firm release date, either, as the press materials simply state that it anticipates a fall release. If word is good, might it be fast-tracked for a qualifying run?

Sarah Prefers to Run (Sarah préfère la course)

Photo courtesy Les films Séville
Dir. Chloé Robichaud
Programme: Discovery (Toronto Premiere)
Synopsis: This stylish and slyly comic chronicle of a young woman’s sexual awakening is the highly anticipated feature debut of Quebec filmmaker Chloé Robichaud.
Cast: Sophie Desmarais, Jean-Sébastien Courchesne, Geneviève Boivin-Roussy, Eve Duranceau, Hélène Florent, Micheline Lanctôt, Pierre-Luc Lafontaine, Benoît Gouin

Sarah Prefers to Run seems like a strong contender going into Toronto. The film by Chloé Robichaud, making her feature debut, premiered at Cannes where it received a standing ovation. Sarah’s strong run continued as it opened theatrically in Quebec early this summer and enjoyed several weeks atop the Canadian box office. It has since grossed a healthy $153 479 as of August 1st, which is respectable if one considers that the take is from one province alone. Last year’s nominee Rebelle followed a similar pattern of premiering at a major film festival (Berlin) before opening strong in Quebec and bringing considerable pre-festival buzz to Toronto as it premiered to Canadian audiences outside Quebec. But is Sarah going into TIFF with the same hype as Rebelle did?

In short, no. Early word from Cannes and Quebec is generally positive, but the reviews don’t carry the same level of enthusiasm that Rebelle brought. For example, the Cannes review from The Hollywood Reporter is largely dismissive, saying that Sarah Prefers to Run “feels too thin both narratively and cinematically”. The review praises star Sophie Desmarais, but notes that Sarah is a difficult character to find compelling. Variety makes similar observations, offering a mixed review that says Desmarais gives “a performance marked by intense watchfulness and very little dialogue” as Sarah, but the reviewer remarks, “Sarah may prefer to run, but she doesn’t get anywhere particularly notable in this determinedly flat character study…” Cranky trades aside, Sarah Prefers to Run kept a steady pace post-Cannes and found more favourable reviews at home. Sound on Sight, for example, made observations consistent with the trades by noting the film’s subdued style and the overall blankness of the closed-off Sarah, but concluded that the film is “a compelling, effortlessly intimate character piece”. Similarly, Voir says that Robichaud displays a mastery of her art, although the review ultimately echoes the mixed, if mildly favourable reviews. The Montreal Gazette, meanwhile, offered the most negative review, arguing, “that lack of emotional spark is… going to be a hurdle that many viewers will have trouble getting over.” The best hope for Sarah might lie in the review for the Francophone publication Affaire des gars, which calls the film a deeply moving work (“une œuvre bouleversante”) and, more importantly, gives a more intuitive running line than Variety does, saying that the film is more a matter of a marathon than of a sprint (“Il est plus ici question de marathon que de sprint.”). If immediate gratification is what the Foreign Language Film committee is looking for, Sarah isn’t it; however, a smart film that lasts with the viewer/voter could be better in the long run.

Le Démantèlement

Photo credit: Bertrand Calmeau, courtesy Les films Séville
Dir. Sébastien Pilote
Programme: Contemporary World Cinema (North American Premiere)
Synopsis: The stoic patriarch of a Quebec farmstead makes a dramatic sacrifice on behalf of his daughter in this poignant sophomore feature from filmmaker Sébastien Pilote (The Salesman).
Cast: Gilles Renaud, Gabriel Arcand, Lucie Laurier, Sophie Desmarais      

Here’s an odd duck. Le Démantèlement offers both the best and worst evidence for contention for Best Foreign Language Film. Let’s start with the good news for this new film from Sébastien Pilote, whose previous film Le vendeur was a surprise selection for TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten in 2011. First, Le Démantèlement premiered at Cannes where it took home Canada’s only award at the festival by netting the prize for Best Screenplay from la Société des auteurs et compositeurs dramatiques (SACD). Second, Film Movement picked it up for American distribution post-Cannes, which means that it is the only one of the five films listed here to have a party secured to push the film through an awards campaign. That alone is a significant factor. (The film is scheduled for Canadian release on November 15th.)

Le Démantèlement sounds promising to represent Canada, or it does until one grasps the critical consensus coming out of Cannes. Variety, for one, calls Le Démantèlementa film whose measured pace and minimal conflict seem better suited to pastoral living than arthouse viewing.” This review actually seems more favourable than other notices, which don’t offer strong prospects for Oscar-ly success. Take Screen Daily’s review, which notes, While beautifully shot and impressively performed, it is ultimately perhaps too restrained and muted to break out internationally.” Ditto The Hollywood Reporter, which calls Le Démantèlement a “lovingly crafted but overlong pastoral reverie” and says the film “feels too culturally parochial and dramatically underpowered to appeal to wider overseas markets.” Most reviews give strong notice to lead actor Gabriel Arcand (who won a Genie for The Decline of the American Empire, directed by his brother Denys), cinematography, and score, but seem to agree that Pilote’s pastoral style might simply be too slow and methodical for its own good. The reviews, however, aren’t negative; they’re merely mixed. Moreover, the look and tone of Le Démantèlement certainly seems lovely if one takes a glimpse at the trailer. This film might simply play better locally than globally.


Photo Credit: Philippe Bosse, courtesy of Les films Séville
Dir. Louise Archambault
Programme: Special Presentations (North American Premiere)
Synopsis: Quebecois director Louise Archambault follows her smart and refreshing debut feature Familia with this tender drama about a developmentally challenged young woman’s quest for independence and sexual freedom.
Cast: Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, Alexandre Landry, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin

There’s not yet much to go on for Gabrielle. The film nevertheless boasts strong chances if it delivers, since it’s slated to hit theatres September 20th following a North American Premiere at TIFF after making a World Premiere at Locarno. This strategy has paid off well for Quebec’s strong producing team of Kim McCraw and Luc Déry, who took Canada to the Oscars two years in a row with Incendies and Monsieur Lazhar. They missed out last year with Inch ‘Allah, which would have been my personal choice to send, so they could be back after giving someone else a turn.

Gabrielle reunites the producers with Incendies star Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Familia director Louise Archambault. Archambault, aside from contributing a short to The National Parks Project, has been curiously absent from feature filmmaking since her 2005 debut film Familia, which won Best Canadian First Feature at TIFF and the Claude Jutra award for debut filmmaker at the Canadian Genies. (It was also nominated for seven competitive awards including Best Picture and Best Director.) The film looks very promising from the trailer and early buzz seems positive with many writers noting Gabrielle as a film to watch from female filmmakers on the festival circuit this fall. The subject matter of the film also seems quite substantial, which could bode well in a category that often favours challenging work. Reviews from Locarno should trickle in soon, as the film premieres at the festival on Monday. If positive responses carry through to TIFF and Gabrielle finds herself an American distributor, the film could bring McCraw and Déry back to the big competition.

Updated: The first reviews from Locarno are in! The Hollywood Reporter notes 'enthusiastic applause' for star Gabrielle Marion-Rivard at the film's screening, while Next Projection's Ronan Doyle (one of Indiewire's writers for its annual Critics Academy at the festival) gives the film a mixed response, writing, "Archambault’s film is light, even slight, its gentle humour and surface-skimming drama making for an affable enough experience, if rather an unmemorable one. Its strength is in the romance it crafts between Gabrielle and fellow singer Martin: leads Gabrielle Marion-Rivard and Alexandre Landry build vastly upon Archambault’s script, making of their characters’ romance something equally personal and political." La Presse, on the other hand, gives the film an all-out rave (depending on how good my French reading skills are) and notes that the audience was captivated by the film, especially Marion-Rivard, and was visibly delighted and moved during the screening. Journal de Montreal offers similar praise, calling the film "magic" and saying that it "is not to be missed". Metro, finally, notes that the film received a healthy ovation and that viewers were 'hyper-moved' by the film and, again, Marion-Rivard. So far so good for Gabrielle. Is the Locarno debut as good for Gabrielle as it was for Monsieur Lazhar?


A scene from Triptych, an eOne Films release
Dir. Robert Lepage with Pedro Pires
Programme: Masters, World Premiere
Synopsis: A Quebec City bookseller with psychiatric issues, a German brain surgeon with a hand tremor, a jazz singer struggling to remember the timbre of her father’s voice: the lives of these three characters intersect in the sublime narrative geometry of this haunting adaptation of Robert Lepage’s celebrated theatre work Lipsynch.
Cast: Frédérike Bédard, Lise Castonguay, Hans Piesbergen

Last but not least is a World Premiere at Toronto that could be one of the festival’s main events for the Can Con crowd. Triptych is an event in itself being Robert Lepage’s return to the director’s seat after a ten-year absence. One of Canada’s most acclaimed filmmakers, Lepage has twice represented Canada in the Oscar race, most recently with the 2003 film The Far Side of the Moon (La face cachée de la lune) and in 1995 for The Confessional, which also scooped the Genie for Best Picture. Audiences might be most familiar with Lepage’s 2000 English language feature Possible Worlds, which starred Tilda Swinton and The Sweet Hereafter’s Tom McCamus.

Lepage hasn’t been lazy this past decade even though he hasn’t been behind the camera. The director has had equal, if not greater, success as a dramatist and he has adapted many of his own plays for the screen. Triptych is Lepage’s latest effort in bringing his own work from stage to screen. It also sounds like his most ambitious project, too, as Lipsynch, the play on which the film is based, has run between five and nine hours long. It’s a haunting, elaborate work with innovative sets and visual design, which could translate thrillingly (or fatally) to the cinema. (See below for a highlight reel of the play.)

The excitement generated by Lepage’s return is clear in his presence on the Canadian festival circuit this year. Not only is Toronto welcoming him back by offering him a slot in the Masters programme, which showcased Michael Haneke’s Amour last year, but also the Montreal Festival du nouveau cinema has selected Triptych as its opening night film. Triptych then hits Canadian theatres October 25th. Canada could therefore send a seasoned master back to the competition as a rousing “Welcome back”.

So what could be Canada’s Oscar choice? I’m not nearly as confident in hazarding a guess as I was last year in speculating Rebelle’s chances. Odds are that Tom or Gabrielle could bring popular filmmakers to the Oscar race if their films deliver. Ditto Triptych, although the film sounds like a risky and cerebral work. So was Possible Worlds, though, and Lepage has proven that he can handle heavy material with an effortless air. Sarah Prefers to Run, on the other hand, seems like a viable option outside of the films that are sight unseen. It sounds like it has the goods to make a run for submission status, but it might not have all it needs to make it to the finish line. Archambault and Robichaud also offer viable options for Gabrielle and Sarah, respectively, since sending up-and-coming female directors might find favour with the image of diversity that the Academy is trying to present. Any one of these films has a legitimate chance if it goes over well, which makes this year’s race especially exciting.

(And if none of the films makes it past the January shortlist, however, at least Canada can still root for Stories We Tell.)

What do you think? 

Which film could be Canada’s Oscar contender?