Back in May at the Cannes Film Festival, a colleague was gushing — as was pretty much everyone, this critic included — about Isabelle Huppert’s ice-cool, high-wire tour de force as a rape victim with a very unusual psychology in Paul Verhoeven’s comeback feature “Elle.”
“She should win the Oscar in a walk,” she asserted, before adding a predictable caveat. “Shame awards voters won’t touch that performance with a 50-foot-pole.”
Seven months later, my colleague might not be feeling so pessimistic. Despite being housed in a chilly, controversial, French-language film, Huppert has emerged as the surprise dark horse of the season so far, bulldozing through the major critics’ awards and landing a Golden Globe nomination.
Whether she scores her first-ever Oscar nomination in a competitive category remains to be seen, but she’s very much in the conversation. That’s unprecedented territory for Huppert, despite the Frenchwoman’s reputation as one of the greatest in her field, with a long, celebrated filmography of adventurous work that was never on the Academy’s radar — from “The Piano Teacher” to “The Lacemaker” to “8 Women.”
For critics, she epitomizes the kind of international performer who would rack up multiple Oscar nods “in a perfect world”; come January, that perfect world might be the real one.
To be fair, there’s plenty of precedent for performers in left-field foreign or arthouse films bucking the odds to break into the Oscar race: The past two years alone have seen Marion Cotillard (“Two Days, One Night”) and Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years”) elbow aside glossier, more aggressively campaigned contenders on the strength of their work. But for every acclaimed outsider who makes the cut, there are equally deserving names who never come close, insurmountably hindered by the low profile and/or challenging nature of their films.
For example, if Huppert can join the likes of Emma Stone and Natalie Portman in this year’s lead actress discussion, why shouldn’t Sônia Braga? Long after her foray into Hollywood, the Brazilian veteran landed the role of a lifetime in Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Cannes critics’ favorite “Aquarius”: As a defiant bohemian widow defending her beloved apartment from venal property developers, she’s sexy, steel-nerved, and quietly heartbreaking as she reconciles her cherished past to an increasingly alienating present.
Yet aside from a win with the San Diego film critics, she’s found no traction this season — Vitagraph Films, the pic’s U.S. distributor, simply hasn’t the clout to push her into the race. Huppert, by contrast, has expert underdog campaigners Sony Pictures Classics — the same outfit behind Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” which landed five noms in 2013 — working for her.
While “Aquarius” has also had to sit out the Oscar race for foreign-language film — after the Brazilian selectors refused, on political grounds, to submit the film — its fellow Cannes sensation “Toni Erdmann” has been luckier. German director Maren Ade’s poignant, sometimes raucous father-daughter dramedy is viewed as the one to beat in that category, and has duly taken a number of precursor awards.
Yet while the film is driven significantly by two mercurial lead performances, stars Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek haven’t attracted a whisper of Oscar talk. You won’t see a gutsier display of tragicomic emotion this year than Hüller’s all-stops-out karaoke rendition of “The Greatest Love of All” at a critical narrative juncture, while Simonischek’s juggling of a lonely eccentric’s multiple moods and personae is no less complex a feat than lead actor frontrunner Casey Affleck’s internalized grief. But name recognition is a factor in this game, putting them at a distinct disadvantage.
Same goes for Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, the sterling Spanish leads of Pedro Almodóvar’s wistful, winning return to form “Julieta.” The Academy may have handed Almodóvar two Oscars over the years, but the only thesp from his filmography’s colorful gallery of star turns to nab a nomination remains “Volver’s” Penélope Cruz — a star by then well-established in Hollywood.
Another foreign female duo worthy of consideration: Korean stars Min-hee Kim and Tae-ri Kim, who play a deliciously tricky, sensual duet in Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden.” But while certain critics’ groups have championed the film, don’t expect the Academy to warm up to this dark, kinky period entertainment outside the design categories.
If even these prominently screened and acclaimed foreign-language titles can’t make contenders of their stars, spare a thought for the standout performers whose films made much less of a ripple. Chilean veteran Alfredo Castro is masterfully expressive in Venezuelan newcomer Lorenzo Vigas’ Venice Golden Lion-winning gay drama “From Afar,” but the film remains perilously underseen. Similarly Narges Rashidi, the riveting Iranian lead of Sundance-buzzed, Tehran-set horror film “Under the Shadow” — who has both language and genre bias working against her nervy turn.
A Cannes Palme d’Or win last year, meanwhile, couldn’t persuade audiences to turn out for Jacques Audiard’s immigration- themed thriller “Dheepan,” leaving remarkable South Asian newcomers Kalieaswari Srinivasan (from India) and Jesuthasan Antonythasan (Sri Lanka) mostly unsung.
And that’s to say nothing of this year’s terrific English-language performers, some higher-profile than others, who have nonetheless struggled to gain Oscar heat. Kate Beckinsale does hilarious, career-best work as the politely venomous heroine of Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation “Love & Friendship,” yet couldn’t even get a Golden Globe comedy nom; her scene-poaching co-star Tom Bennett should also be gathering supporting actor mentions. Another Brit, Rebecca Hall, also gives a watershed performance as depressive newscaster Christine Chubbuck in U.S. indie “Christine,” yet was passed over by the Independent Spirits; at least she’s had a few critics’ group citations, which is more than her superb supporting co-star Maria Dizzia can claim.
Meanwhile, however many critics’ awards (including a major Los Angeles win) the luminous Lily Gladstone scoops for her low-key but devastating role as a lovestruck ranch hand in Kelly Reichardt’s serenely subtle “Certain Women,” awards pundits aren’t biting. Hearing the young Native American newcomer’s name on Oscar nomination morning would be as much a victory against the system as Huppert’s.