By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood April 4, 2011 at 5:15AM
Since when is winning an Oscar a bad thing? In his disparaging NYT review of In a Better World, A.O. Scott uses its recent foreign Oscar win as a warning sign:
“In a Better World,” directed by the Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier and written by Anders Thomas Jensen, is an elegant, somber scourge for the guilty conscience of the affluent, liberal West. Or, to put it another way, “In a Better World” is the winner of the 2011 Academy Award for best foreign language film...Everything about In a Better World feels just a little too easy: a better movie might have let in more of the messiness of the world as it is. This one falls into cheap manipulation, winding up the audience with foreboding music and the spectacle of blond children in peril.
Scott wasn't the only critic to go after Bier's family drama, which explores male power relationships as a doctor (Mikael Persbrandt) deals with the break-up of his family in Denmark, where his son is bullied, and travels to an African refugee camp as a doctor without borders. David Edelstein's review in New York is headlined: "The Dullness of Being Earnest: In a Better World is socially worthy—and utterly joyless." Is this yet another case of male film critics failing to see the merits of a woman director's intimate, subtle, intuitive filmmaking? Bier is one of the finest directors working today, consistently turning out excellent work, from Open Hearts and Brothers (which was remade by Hollywood) to After the Wedding, also nominated for an Oscar.
Critics have an undue impact on foreign films (especially serious dramas such as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Biutiful), which remain a tough sell for American moviegoers--unless Lars von Trier scandalizes viewers with Anti-Christ or Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu star in an entertaining French comedy of manners like Music Box's well-reviewed Potiche, which is shaping up as a small hit. Ironically, the publicity surrounding French drama Of Gods and Men not landing an Oscar nomination boosted its box office fortunes--with strong reviews it is doing solid business.
Harsh reviews kept audiences away in droves from In a Better World, which scored a disastrous $35,000 in four top-flight theaters, including L.A.'s the Arclight, faring even worse than
last year's downbeat Japanese Oscar-winner Departures. This raises the issue of whether foreign film distributors aren't better off opening their Oscar candidates earlier, during the nomination window, when awards interest is high, rather than later, when an Oscar win seems to bring no significant bump at all.
UPDATE: In this case, Sony Pictures Classics knew from an early Cannes market screening that certain critics despised the movie and thus the distrib was protecting it from assault by holding back until after the awards season yielded, happily, Golden Globe and Oscar wins. Then they took Bier on a promo tour to fests in Miami and Austin, among others, which will pay off with media interviews as the movie broadens around the country.
Thankfully, In a Better World had ardent supporters as well, including EW's Lisa Scharzbaum, who praises Bier's "talent for weaving together accessible domestic melodrama and issues of ethical awareness of the world beyond our doorstep" and the LAT's Ken Turan:
The Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier has a potent gift for turning abstract, moral questions like these into edge-of-your-seat compelling dramas that examine, with devastating effect, the complex web of feelings that make us who we are. With "In A Better World," which deservedly won this year's best foreign language Oscar, she has outdone even herself.
Here's TOH's interview with Bier.