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France has been a supreme force in the Oscars’ international feature race for decades. This year, three acclaimed films from women directors — Céline Sciamma, Audrey Diwan and Julia Ducournau — are believed to be at the top of the list to represent the country for the upcoming 94th ceremony, set to take place on March 27. Though France is the most-nominated country in the history of the category, it hasn’t walked away with the prize in nearly 30 years. Can that change this year?

The French submission is decided annually by the National Cinema Center. The committee will hold its first meeting on Thursday to pre-select a shortlist of films, with the producers being “auditioned” by the committee on Oct. 12, before the final choice is made. Sciamma’s “Petite Maman,” Ducournau’s “Titane” and Diwan’s “Happening” are believed to be the favorites for consideration. “Happening” was just acquired by IFC Films and Film Nation while “Petite Maman” and “Titane” are being distributed by Neon. Furthermore, “Titane” won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The prize also went to Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” in 2019, before that film went on to become the first foreign language movie to win best picture. IFC also released “Blue is the Warmest Colour” (2013), which was famously not selected as France’s Oscar submission in its respective year, despite winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

This year, the French committee added four new members to its roster — Oscar-winner Florian Zeller (“The Father”), Oscar nominee Julie Delpy, Émilie Georges (Memento International CEO) and Grégory Chambet (co-founding head of WTFilms). They join institutional members Thierry Frémaux (Cannes Film Festival director), Serge Toubiana (Unifrance president) and Véronique Cayla (co-president of France’s César Academy).

In recent memory, I can’t recall three female helmed cinematic endeavors being the frontrunners to represent the country, especially from three drastically different genres.

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“Happening” Courtesy of Wild Bunch

“Happening” (L’événement) had its world premiere at this year’s Venice Film Festival, winning the Golden Lion, one of only five women who have ever won since 1949. “Audrey Diwan’s quietly devastating sophomore feature is the latest in an ongoing run of tough, emotionally intelligent art films dealing frankly with the subject of abortion access,” wrote Guy Lodge in his Variety review.

Ducournau also made history becoming just the second female director to win the Palme d’Or (following Jane Campion’s tie with Chen Kaige for “The Piano” in 1993). How could France not want to have such a historic accomplishment represent its native tongue? Both “Happening” and “Titane” are walking onto the awards circuit with solid accolades. However, an awards strategist shares that Diwan’s film “is the safest choice for France to make.”

“Titane,” which showcases two outstanding turns from Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon, is a genre-bending piece with Neon’s Tom Quinn calling its writer and director “the future of cinema.” Disturbing imagery can be difficult for more casual, conservative Academy members who opt in to the process, but perhaps they’ll be open to new, bold voices.

The truth is, the French have not been particularly accepting of women-helmed projects in the awards space. Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s “Mustang” (2015) is the last film directed by a woman to represent France. France is the only country that has submitted a film every year since the creation of the category, resulting in 65 movie submissions, with 38 garnering noms and nine winning features (“My Uncle” in 1958, “Black Orpheus” in 1959, “Sundays and Cybele” in 1962, “A Man and a Woman” in 1966, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” in 1972, “Day for Night” for 1973, “Madame Rosa” in 1977, “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs” in 1978 and “Indochine” in 1992). The cinema-loving country also received three honorary awards before the category’s introduction in 1956 for “Forbidden Games” (1952), “The Walls of Malapaga” (1950) and “Monsieur Vincent” (1948).

In the history of the international feature category, only nine women directors have represented France:

  • Deniz Gamze Ergüven
    “Mustang” (2015) – nominated
  • Valérie Donzelli
    “Declaration of War” (2011) – not nominated
  • Marjane Satrapi (co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud)
    “Persepolis” (2007) – not nominated
  • Danièle Thompson
    “Avenue Montaigne” (2006) – made shortlist
  • Agnès Jaoui
    “The Taste of Others” (2000) – nominated
  • Josiane Balasko
    “French Twist” (1995) – not nominated
  • Coline Serreau
    “Three Men and a Cradle” (1985) – nominated
  • Diane Kurys
    “Entre Nous” (1983) – nominated
  • Marguerite Duras
    “India Song” (1975) – not nominated

No woman has ever won the international feature for France, so how has that happened? Sciamma’s last film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019), drew acclaim from critics and audiences and won the Queer Palm at Cannes, in addition to several other notable noms, including the Golden Globes and BAFTA. But the committee instead selected Ladj Ly’s “Les Misérables,” which did receive an Oscar nomination.

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“Petite Maman” Berlin Film Festival

Multiple sources have shared that Sciamma has not been appreciated in her native land throughout her career, proven by her other acclaimed works not being chosen previously, such as “My Life as Courgette” (2016) and “Girlhood” (2014). So are they keen to make it up to her after the snub for “Portrait,” or is the speculation of the savvy campaigner true, and there’s no chance for “Petite Maman” to find traction?

Countries can often shock the awards landscape. Spain, which recently decided to submit Fernando León de Aranoa’s “The Good Boss” instead of Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers,” was quite the jaw-dropper.

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“Benedetta” Courtesy of Pathé

Other rumored possibilities for the shortlist include Jacques Audiard’s dramedy “Paris, 13th District,” Xavier Giannoli’s “Lost Illusions,” based on Honoré de Balzac, which premiered in competition at Venice and Paul Verhoeven’s graphic lesbian nun drama, “Benedetta.” Verhoeven represented the country with “Elle” (2016) but failed to be nominated, although his lead actress Isabelle Huppert was recognized. Others expected for consideration include Alice Diop’s documentary “We” and François Ozon’s drama “Everything Went Fine.”

Academy members choose to opt in to watch and vote for the international submission, which saw its largest consideration class of 93 countries last year, resulting in Denmark’s “Another Round” from best director nominee Thomas Vinterberg winning the statuette. Preliminary voting for the international feature shortlist begins on Dec. 10 until Dec. 15, with the remaining 15 films being announced on Dec. 21.

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