We’re at a corner table in the restaurant of the legendary Chateau Marmont Hotel, sharing an overpriced plate of oysters from New Brunswick. It seemed as good a place as any to go for dinner with Denis Villeneuve, the Quebec director whose film Incendies has an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. The Chateau, a faux-French knock-off of a Loire castle, is ground zero of Hollywood decadence, and has served as a hideaway home for everyone from Greta Garbo to Lindsay Lohan. It’s where James Dean hopped through a window to meet Natalie Wood, John Belushi overdosed, and Britney Spears got banned for life after smearing food over her face in the restaurant. We look around for signs of bad behaviour, but amid the Gothic arches and gold-flecked wallpaper we don’t recognize anyone misbehaving, famous or infamous. And no one recognizes the genial Québécois who will carry Canada’s hopes to the Oscars this Sunday night.
Villeneuve has spent the past week holed up at a less notorious hotel, the posh Beverly Wilshire. The only Canadian movie ever to win Best Foreign Language Film was Denys Arcand’s Barbarian Invasions (2003). Arcand’s producer-wife, Denise Robert, met with Villeneuve before he left Montreal and stressed that he would have to schmooze Academy members at endless lunches and cocktails. “We did a tremendous amount of campaigning,” Robert told me. “It was gruelling. For six months we flew back and forth to L.A.”
So I was taken aback when Villeneuve confessed that, on the advice of his American distributor, he was doing nothing to campaign for Incendies. But Invasions was released in the U.S. by Miramax under the reign of Harvey Weinstein, the Clausewitz of modern Oscar warfare. Incendies belongs to Sony Pictures Classics, whose co-president Michael Barker believes that campaigning for foreign-language films is a waste of time and money. For proof, he points to last year’s Sony Classics winner, The Secret in Their Eyes, an unknown contender from Argentina.
Barker’s rationale is simple. The Foreign Language Oscar has a peculiar voting procedure. In other categories, nominees are picked by members from each craft—actors nominate actors, directors directors—and then all 6,000 Academy members can vote for the award. Foreign film nominees are selected by committees, and then only Academy members who can prove they’ve seen all five films in a theatre are eligible to vote for the winner. A few hundred voters with time on their hands will likely decide the outcome. The other foreign film nominees are Mexico’s Biutiful, Denmark’s In a Better World, Greece’s Dogtooth and Algeria’s Outside the Law. Sony Classics, which also distributes In A Better World, has booked an equal number of screenings for it and Incendies, both nominees, and bought equivalent ads in the Hollywood trades, says Barker. Villeneuve says there’s also “an underground campaign” to mobilize Canadian Academy members.
Relieved that he doesn’t have to work the cocktail circuit, Villeneuve says his L.A. sojourn has turned into an unexpected holiday, his first break since Incendies was launched six months ago to wild acclaim at festivals in Venice, Telluride and Toronto. He has been touring constantly to promote the movie, which has sold to 35 countries. In the final days before Oscar night, there will be a blitz of parties. But last week, aside from taking some meetings with Hollywood producers, Villeneuve was relishing the silence of his hotel room, reading scripts, pondering his next project—and stepping out to play tourist with the guy from Maclean’s.
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