It makes for an unlikely combination: some of Hollywood's biggest stars rubbing up against relative obscurities from the international festival circuit. Yet that's exactly what happens each year at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which has become an essential stop for celebs working the awards circuit while also showcasing iforeign language cinema (including Oscar hopefuls).
"To me, that's the beauty of the festival, that combination," said festival director Darryl Macdonald. "We were always into focusing on international cinema and the discovery of new talent. Once you become converted to international cinema, it's pretty unlikely you're going to go back to a diet of only English-language films."
This time, for example, some 150 of the 187 feature films screening in Palm Springs are in a foreign language. Palm Springs is showing 45 of the 76 films submitted for the foreign language Oscar, including all nine of the pictures on the film academy's nominations shortlist. This gives audiences a chance to see for themselves more than just the presumed front-runners — Denmark's "The Hunt," Hong Kong's "The Grandmaster" and Italy's "The Great Beauty."
This marks the 25th anniversary of the Palm Springs International Film Festival; in the past, the festival would strive to show all the foreign language Oscar submissions. More recently, however, programmers have looked to put together a tighter selection. Speaking to the quality of the films submitted this season, the festival's artistic director, Helen du Toit, said: "I had intended to cut it off at 35 or 40, but there were just more that were good."
Even among those films that did not make the cut to the Oscar shortlist, there are many strong selections, such as Australia's "The Rocket," Mexico's "Heli," the Netherlands' "Borgman," Chile's "Gloria," Singapore's "Ilo Ilo," Georgia's "In Bloom," and Switzerland's documentary "More Than Honey."
"This section has become a big draw to our audience," added Du Toit. "People want to feel like they're insiders, like they can talk the academy talk. Even regarding the shortlist, they want to have opinions, 'Oh, they missed this one,' and that kind of thing."
Besides the Canadian Oscar submission, "Gabrielle," the festival also has a Spotlight on Canadian Cinema section with a number of French language films, including "Another House," "Sarah Prefers to Run," "The Auction" and "Vic + Flo Saw a Bear." Also screening as part of the Canadian program is the English-language "Enemy" from filmmaker Denis Villeneuve and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, a reteaming of the pair who had recent box office success with "Prisoners."
Palm Springs will also feature a section called "Modern Masters" that includes a number of notable foreign language films, including Agnieszka Holland's "Burning Bush" from the Czech Republic as well as documentarian Claude Lanzmann's "The Last of the Unjust" and Francois Ozon's "Young & Beautiful."
Du Toit noted that the audience in Palm Springs can be unpredictable, responding first and foremost to strong storytelling in whatever the language or genre — "They are beyond the Netflix crowd; they are a Criterion Collection kind of audience," she said — such as when the audience award a few years back went to the original Swedish version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."
At a time when foreign language films often struggle in the broader theatrical marketplace, venues such as Palm Springs also prove that there is an audience unbothered by subtitles.
"I think there has been a lot of hype about the end of the art house that is completely untrue," Du Toit added. "I think there is a hungry audience who is underserviced most of the year, and so they flock to places like Palm Springs and other destination festivals to fill up on as many of these films as they can. And then they go home to provide great word of mouth for when and if these films do get picked up for theatrical distribution."
Some 70% of the festival audience at Palm Springs comes from out of town, with attendance of more than 135,000 in recent years making it among the top festivals for attendance in the U.S. McDonald noted that many who come to Palm Springs for the festival do so as "a cultural vacation."
"Part of our mission is to build an audience for international cinema in the U.S.," McDonald added. "Before long, you're walking them down a path where they will take more chances in their filmgoing."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun