Oscar Notebook: Even in the obscure foreign language category, these two films are little known

Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens in "The Broken Circle Breakdown."
Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens in "The Broken Circle Breakdown." (Tribeca Film)

It's easy to feel a certain fatigue as awards season drags along, with even the most dedicated Oscar-ologists tiring of talking about the same boiled-down pool of a few films. So this may be just the time to turn to the lesser-known quarters of the Oscar ballot, such as the relatively obscure corners of the foreign language film category.

It is widely anticipated that the prize will go to either Italy's "The Great Beauty," which picked up similar prizes at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, or Denmark's "The Hunt," which stars actor Mads Mikkelsen, currently seen on the U.S. television show "Hannibal." (And changes to this year's voting, which allow more of the broader academy membership to vote in the category for the first time, may make that familiarity factor more important than in years past.) Filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, who made Palestine's "Omar," was a previous nominee for his 2005 film "Paradise Now."


That leaves room for two relatively little-known titles, Belgium's "The Broken Circle Breakdown" and Cambodia's "The Missing Picture." Both have won numerous prizes of their own. "Breakdown" was nominated for six European Film Awards, picking up the best actress prize for Veerle Baetens. "The Missing Picture" won the top prize when it premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film festival, awarded by a jury headed by Thomas Vinterberg, director of "The Hunt." (That same jury recognized "Omar" as well.) But both are distinctive movies worth a look that could benefit from their moment in the Oscars' spotlight.

Cambodia's "The Missing Picture" may be the most unlikely and unusual nominee since the 2010 Greek film "Dogtooth." Director Rithy Panh has previously made documentaries on the Khmer Rouge regime and Cambodian genocide, but his latest film is both a documentary and first-person essay, mixing clay figurines with archival footage to explore something haunting and personal.

"I always say I didn't survive because I'm stronger than other people. I'm here today because other people helped me," said Panh in Los Angeles in the fall when the film played as part of AFI Fest. "Of course it's about me, but it's not only about me."

Even as the film has won prizes and played at other major festivals, the singular style and somber subject of "The Missing Picture" have made it an unusual Oscar player.

"I was surprised, but just because of the competition," said Marcus Hu, co-president of Strand Releasing, who noted the bigger "wow moment" for him came when the film first made it from the field of 76 submissions to the pre-nominations shortlist of nine films.

"But then again, it's such a special movie," Hu added. "It's so heartfelt and personal, when people connect to the movie, they really connect to it."

Panh also noted that he's not sure if he feels any better for having made the film. But what he does know is that he hopes the film helps younger people in Cambodia understand their own history while moving forward.

"They don't have to be guilty about what happened," Panh said. "All of this sentiment should stop with my generation. We can write our own history, we can face it, and you're allowed to go on. I'm afraid if you don't write your own story, the next generation will feel guilty. And they are guilty of nothing."

"The Broken Circle Breakdown" also crosses genres. It's a romantic musical melodrama in which a couple who sing together in a bluegrass group must deal with their daughter's leukemia. Director Felix Van Groeningen co-wrote the adaptation of the stage play co-written by male lead Johan Heldenbergh. The film opened in Belgium in 2012 and was a homegrown success there, with the soundtrack CD becoming a bestseller.

Even so, when the film played at the Berlin Film Festival early in 2013 it wasn't highly anticipated, with a news conference held in a mostly empty room. Then the film picked up two prizes at the festival, and its international life began to take off.

"It was an amazing film to make, but then we had a hard time getting into a big festival and we didn't know, 'What is this film going to do?'" Van Groeningen said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "Maybe it is too dark, maybe it tries to combine too many things, I don't know. At some point we really didn't know."


"To be honest, I have three children, and if somebody says, 'There's a movie around with a dead child,' oh, man, I wouldn't go," Heldenbergh added. Nevertheless, he said, "I was confident. It will find its way. I didn't expect it to be here at this level, but I was reasonably confident about it. When the boom guy starts to cry, you know you're doing something right."

Much like the recent Coen brothers' film, "Inside Llewyn Davis," the lyrics of the songs serve to comment on and push the story along. The centerpiece to the film is a delicate, heartbreaking reading of the late country singer-songwriter Townes Van Sant's "If I Needed You."

"It's the heart of the movie," Heldenbergh said of the song. "It tells the whole story: 'If I needed you, would you come to me. I would come to you if you needed me.' But it's just not true every time. You want to be there, but sometimes you just don't make it there."

The stamp of approval of an Oscar nomination can mean many different things. Heldenbergh likened the experience to being the national team at a sporting event. For Panh it means something else.

"The Khmer Rouge can't destroy me," Panh said. "I still have my imagination and am capable of making films. I am not locked up.

"For the young generation, when they see that there is a film director from Cambodia to go on to be nominated, for them a lot can change. I don't know another way to restore our identity if it's not art."