Oscar nomination puts ‘Amour’ in the spotlight

AmourEmmanuelle Riva in 'Amour' (Photo: Darius Khondji/Sony Pictures Classics)

Michael Haneke's "Amour" received five Academy Award nominations this morning, delighting -- if that's the right word -- world cinema fans and constituting the high point of the Austrian auteur's mainstream visibility in America. In Europe, Haneke's late-career renaissance has been even more high-profile: this May, he became only the second filmmaker, after Francis Ford Coppola, to win the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the Palme D'Or, more than once (Haneke's last film, 2009's "The White Ribbon," also won).

The Palme D'Or, or "Golden Palm," is the most prestigious award in world cinema, and is frequently won by films that become enduring classics; a select group of American winners includes "Pulp Fiction," "Barton Fink," "Apocalypse Now," "Taxi Driver," and "MASH." As opposed to the Oscars' relatively large voting body of increasingly elderly industry, the awards at Cannes are selected by a small jury of accomplished and respected film artists, itself carefully selected by the festival board of directors. With this being the case, the type of film that wins the Palme D'Or in a given year depends on the makeup of that year's jury; some are more likely to reward pictures that are the product of a singular artistic vision, others that speak to social and political issues. To win twice, as Haneke and Coppola before him did, is an indication of work whose appeal and significance transcends passing fads and momentary serendipity.

As far as Oscars are concerned, Palme D'Or winners frequently rack up nominations, most often for Best Foreign Film when they're from countries other than the US, but only very rarely win. Again, the Oscars are selected by an entirely different kind of voter and size of voting pool. Oscar voters tend, while there are exceptions, to be older white men who have been working professionals in the movie industry for many years rather than serious, critically-minded filmmakers (though, obviously, there are some exceptions to that generalized Cannes jury member as well). Completely aside from any stereotyping of taste one can infer from the Oscar voting body based on their age, gender, or professional background, the fact that the Oscars are chosen by so many more people means that consensus plays a much greater role. Oscar winners are the kind of movies the largest number of people can agree on, rather than the vanguard of cinema as a medium. The latter type of film, by its nature, tends to be more divisive, inspiring passionate dislike as much as it does love.

Where Michael Haneke and "Amour" have an advantage with Oscar voters is in the subject of the film: a married couple facing old age and death. An elderly voting body may very well identify emotionally -- the greatest determining factor in Oscar voting -- with the material and carry "Amour" to wins in most, if not all, of the categories in which it's nominated. Precedents, in this case Palme D'Or winners having trouble winning Oscars, are only relevant until they are broken.