Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Feb 25, 2019 6:54 am 
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A cruel system and a fraught friendship

For the third time Thomas Lilti, whose hospital drama Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor played in the 2015 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, draws on his medical background again for an intense, no-nonsense recreation of the experience of French medical students going through the grueling "first year" of the national system. He brings back Vincent Lacoste, who, less known five years ago, played a clumsy hospital intern in Hippocrates, and this time goes back in time a bit to play Antoine, who is beginning his third attempt at first year, which ends in an entrance exam that's an obstacle in the way of actual medical specialization in France.

Antoine meets Benjamin (William Lebghil) this time as classes begin, a boy who's more at ease because growing up in a medical family makes him more comfortable than Antoine with the whole idea of these studies and concepts. They join up as pals and study buddies, entering the whirlwind of rote learning and personal confusion about vocational goals. Clearly Antoine passionately desires to continue medical school, but the dry material doesn't come easily to him, and this third effort drives him to the brink. Benjamin's father is a doctor and his family is one of privilege. He is relaxed about the whole process, it comes easily. And yet it's not certain that he cares. His father's withholding of encouragement is a clear factor in his apparent uncertainty.

Lilti is faced with the issue of how to make a story consisting largely of cramming abstruse medical lore interesting to a general audience, and he doesn't try. To begin with of course he saves us from making this process utterly lonely by focusing on the study pals, Antoine and Benjamin, and their relationship. Nonetheless we get fed a large quantity of incomprehensible medical factoids, and most scenes are of library or study and of memorizing data.

In his Hollywood reporter review Boyd van Hoeij calls this film "Lilti lite" and describes it as "a rambling and semi-impressionistic account" and "exercise in nostalgia" that will "mostly be of interest to doctors or doctors-turned-directors." But while he may be right that it's "less likely to play well abroad" than Lilti's intern drama and "conspicuously absent from the fall festival calendar," there are raucous moments of pressured students letting off steam, but "lite" it is not. The piles of material the first-year students are faced with cramming put them under grim pressure that never lets up.

French critics have noted this is actually the most heavy and serious of Lilti's medical trilogy. It's also by clear implication a strong indictment of the current French system that allows only a tiny fraction of hopefuls into medical training and rejects over 85% every year with a brutal exam favoring rote learning.

Lilti's second medical feature Country Doctor/Médecin de campagne (2016), which I haven't seen, was just as popular as Hippocrates, without winning the raft of French award nominations Hippocrates received. The Freshman did very well with both French critics and public, who were inspired with national concern about the Draconian first-year filtering system and the toll it takes on young aspirants and touched by the intensity and social implications of the fraught relationship between Antoine and Benjamin. Ultimately viewer patience with the repetitive material will pay off. The toll on Antoine and the trajectory of the boys' relationship becomes absorbing to watch. But the the sui generis selection process may not play as well in non-French arthouses. It will do best with those whose memories of grueling university days are still vivid.


The Frenshman/Première annéee, 92 mins., premiered 30 May 2018 in France, in Lille. It made it to one French festival, Angoulême (30 Aug.). French theatrical release 12 Sept. yielded an AlloCiné press rating of 3.7. Screened for this review as part of the UniFrance-Film Society of Lincoln Center Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, Mar. 2019.

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, NYC:
]Thursday, March 7, 9:00pm

Saturday, March 9, 3:45pm

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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