Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 12, 2018 6:56 pm 
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Absorbing, touching portrait of a young man from the provinces in Paris film school

A Paris Education/Mes provinciales, if not for everyone, is a cinephile's and a French film fan's delight. As others have said, it's worthy of the tradition of Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore and Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers - or some of Garrel's earlier films. Its politics among rival arts students strongly reminded me of Emmanuel Bourdieu's Poison Friends/Les amitiés maléfiques (NYFF 2006), particularly for parallels between two seductive, dominant, dangerous, and doomed central characters. The style and the themes here are so classic Civeyrac takes pains in a very early scene to refer to the candidate, Emmanuel Macron, to show this is happening right now.

In A Paris Education/Mes provinciales Étienne (Adrianic Manet), is a long-haired, movie-mad young man of limited means but unlimited enthusiasm (though not without a healthy dose of self-doubt) who comes to the capital from the provinces, specifically working-class Lyon, to live the student life, French style, in film school. The film itself has an evocative "French movie" style, in widescreen black and white, scored with a lot of Bach like a film of the Nouvelle Vague.

More than about love affairs or fledgling filmmakers, this is about that most French of activities, smoking and arguing. Ideas fly, and you actually pay attention to them. They are not mere decor to flesh out relationships and love affairs, but the cinematic equivalent of an intellectual bildungsroman. The French title itself, Provinciales, while alluding to the fact that Étienne and his closest friends are all from provincial French cities, Lyon, Rheims, etc., is an allusion to a book by Pascal that Étienne, who majored in Philosophy back home and studied the Pensées, has not read, and now wants to.

Adrianic Manet is larger and blowsier than your usual young French star, big, long-legged, high-mounted, a bit like the young Depardieu, with a soft face that the camera loves enough to survive many tight closeups. He and his hometown girlfriend Lucie (Diane Rouxel) have been a couple for six years, a long, long time, and they pledge eternal loyalty - until absence makes the heart wander, especially in Étienne's case. He is a bit of a cocksman, with young ladies in and out of his room in the group flat faster than we can count. Notable early on is Valentina (Jenna Thiam), who is soon moving to Berlin, and is very vivacious and attractive - and interested.

But at this point Étienne is trying to be faithful to Lucie, and he and Valentina part without a connection. The most important is Annabelle (Sophie Verbeeck), stronger minded and more moral than Étienne or his friends, a social activist who questions whether making films is enough of a contribution to the world. Eventually Annabelle becomes more fascinating to Étienne than any of the other young women. But that relationship will go astray like the others, only more painfully and memorably. The woman he will wind up with as a couple will come from left field, not a fellow student, someone he barely knew at first from a job.

The young man who impresses and bothers the other film students is the super-confident Mathias (Corentin Fila, who had a central role in Téchiné's Being 17, and an original, unexpected choice for this role). He is very similar to Poison Friends' Thibault Vinçon (André Morney). Matias is a young man who seems brilliant and to whom both Étienne and his gay fellow film student pal Jean-Noël (Gonzague Van Bervesseles) are strongly drawn, and whom all admire or detest, but whose spirit and energy and compelling snap judgments wind up being more destructive than helpful. Like Thibault Vinçon, Mathias is mysterious, and somehow illusory. Étienne worships the elusive Mathias and considers him a key friend, even though he often disappears inexplicably, and his comments cause Étienne to destroy his first short film, begun in Lyon, more than a year's work.

Jean-Noël is the opposite of Mathias, mild-mannered, supportive of all his classmates' filmmaking, and a willing collaborator who's a little in love with Étienne, and doubtless with the sexy, vivacious Mathias as well. Étienne will lose Jean-Noël as a friend because he thoughtlessly treats him as a shadow helper rather than a partner in his work. He suffers major losses just when he is beginning his second short film, showing filmmaking is a collaborative effort but also one that suffers many vicissitudes.

The "faults" of this delightful and moving film are two. How can we keep track of all these young people, all these debates, all these changes of fortune? In being realistically comprehensive, Civeyrac loses artistic unity and clear focus. Second, the related flaw: his film is too long. One could end it any moment in the last twenty minutes. But it's to its credit that these moments all have enough meaning and weight to end with them.

A Paris Education was reviewed at its Berlin debut in Hollywood Reporter by Jordan Mintzer. He says this isn't the more realistic avoidance of a "whiny French film" one of the film students calls for, but it's no less compelling for that, and in it Civeyrac definitely finds his "voice" - at 53, after eight features - making this time "a sincere and very specific kind of coming-of-age tale that’s anchored in the performances of a committed young cast, many of them relatively unknown."

It is hard for me place A Paris Education in Civeyrac's oeuvre having seen and reviewed only two of the previous eight. The first was Through the Forest, his sixth, from 2005, seen in my first New York Film Festival that year, a short, glamorous, dream-like fable that I found felt "tantalizing and incomplete." The second was My Friend Victoria (R-V 2015), an engaging and glossy, sophisticated but more mainstream family study based on a Doris Lessing story.

One is left by Mintzer's review with the question: can a filmmaker be "finding himself" with feature film number nine? But if he is in that process at 53, and still teaching as he was in 2006 at the national film school La Fémis, that makes his involvement in these young men struggling with the beauties and challenges of cinema all the more moving and germane.

A Paris Education/Mes provinciales, 137 mins., debuted Jan. 2018 in the Panorama section of the Berlinale It opens in French cinemas 18 Apr. 2018. Screened for this review as part of the March 8-18 2018 edition of the joint UniFrance, Film Society of Lincoln Center series, Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

March 12 3:30 PM
March 17 6:00 PM

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