BY Sierra Pettengill in Profiles | 22 APR 17
Featured in
Issue 187

Cutting Class

Claire Simon's new documentary exposes the workings of an elite film school 

BY Sierra Pettengill in Profiles | 22 APR 17

The opening shot of Claire Simon’s latest film, Les Concours, lingers on the imposing, wrought-iron gate of the Parisian film school La Fémis, seen from a high vantage point across an empty courtyard. After several long, still moments with the camera trained on the barrier from the inside, a man in a dark suit hurries across the frame to open the gate and a gaggle of students waiting out on the street rushes in.

State-funded and extremely selective, the elite school admits only 60 students per year, smoothing the way for alumni such as Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, François Ozon and Alain Resnais into the top echelon of French filmmaking. ‘The first shot of the film was my actual first shot,’ noted director Claire Simon after a screening of Les Concours (which translates as ‘The Competitions’, although the work is titled The Graduation for US release) at the 2017 True/False film festival in Columbia, Missouri. ‘I felt that the school was like a castle from the Middle Ages.’

Les Concours (The Graduation), 2017, film still. Courtesy: Andolfi & Wide House

The Graduation is French director Simon’s 14th feature film. Her work, which has wandered freely across the porous border between fiction and nonfiction, employs a wide stylistic range, often mixing non-professionals with actors and combining scripted moments with documentary scenarios. The Graduation is decidedly nonfiction, filmed and constructed in a free-roaming fashion reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman’s institutional docu­mentary portraits. It unfolds as a series of scenes depicting the school’s admission examinations: a packed auditorium of applicants frantically writing a timed response to a brief clip from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2012 TV series ‘Shokuzai’; a directing exercise on a set peopled with two actors and a barebones crew; a screenwriting test challenging students to compose and pitch a film around a single line – such as the prompt: ‘She said to me, as if it was perfectly normal, “I am a horse.”’ They are like reality TV challenges, testing creativity under duress. Paired with these scenes are frank and revealing closed-door discussions between the non-faculty film-industry professionals recruited as jurors, wrestling with how best to grade the candidates. The panel’s judgements often vary wildly. ‘Dreyer wouldn’t exactly have been full of the joys of spring in an oral,’ exclaims one juror, referring to the interview of one prospective student that we never get to see. ‘Hopeless,’ another proclaims of a curly haired candidate who has just finished a metaphysical rumination on filming from within shrubbery; this curt dismissal overlaps with a quick, ‘I like him,’ from the woman seated alongside. Working with the full co-operation of La Fémis, Simon, who has taught there, gave all of the prospective students she filmed the option of not being featured once they knew their admission status. Likewise, all of the jurors were invited to her editing suite during the post-production process to decide whether to they wanted their sections removed. (None of them did.)

Within the film, the contours of the admissions process are mostly obscure, with little additional contextual infor­mation provided about the grading rubric. The film eschews standard documentary sign-posting: no identifiers authoritatively inform us that the man in the rumpled suit is the head programmer for a well-regarded Parisian cinema (so please take him seriously) nor do any text cards explain that the admissions procedure takes place over the course of several months. Sometimes, half a scene has unfolded before it becomes clear for which department the candidate is being interviewed. The film doesn’t follow one particular student or juror throughout, nor does it afford any of the participants sufficient screen time to become ‘a character’, thereby avoiding the fallacious sense that we’ve come to know anyone well enough to be able to root either for or against them. It’s also noteworthy, especially for a portrait of a film school, that there is a paucity of images or clips of the prospective students’ work.

Simon allows her audience to become sensitized to the small signifiers of class and status that bleed around the edges.

Rather than building a frustrating barrier to understanding, however, this withheld information functions, exhilaratingly, in quite the opposite way: the more difficult it is to pin down how the decision-making process is organized, the less possible it is to be confident of our own reactions. Over the course of 120 minutes, the film steadily chips away at the notion that we might be able to judge the potential filmmakers on their artistic merits, leaving instead a void to be filled by our pre-existent biases. At True/False, Simon referenced the writings of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu on power and class relations: ‘We are always making institutions to re-create the nobility. These great schools are, of course, a way to create an elite who is going to be sociologically exactly like the elite.’

In fascinating conversations, which often tip over into outright battle, the jurors grapple with their own prejudices. ‘How comfortable they are with speaking will depend on where they studied,’ one says, highlighting the coded privileges that class can confer. In one scene, two tired and beleaguered white female panelists drily fantasize about the ideal roster, desiring inclusivity while acknowledging its seeming impossibility: seven boys and eights girls, they say, one Asian, one black, a North African, some from poor backgrounds. In a late sequence, which is the emotional heart of the film, a panel of six interviews an aspiring producer – currently a student employed as a bartender. Speaking with a hard-to-pin-down mixture of anxiety and arrogance, he talks of purchasing €13,000 worth of camera and sound equipment – the set up for a production studio – paid for by working 12-hour days and six-day weeks.

Les Concours (The Graduation), 2017, film still. Courtesy: Andolfi & Wide House

Simon’s camera keeps the young man in a steady, unwavering shot framed from the waist up: there are no cutaways to nervous, fumbling hands; no zoom-in on a cocky raised eyebrow to serve as helpful tells in reading him. The moment the door closes behind him, a passionate debate ensues. ‘He was shaking like a leaf.’ ‘He’s a thug.’ ‘You must be joking, he was gambling with his life.’ ‘We can’t be populist.’ ‘He has such energy, such ambition, such a vision, such certainty, that I think he’ll get there, but the school is not the right place for him […] He’ll never integrate.’ ‘We can’t not give him a chance because he’s going to carry on. You can say that about any one of them […] This guy was born into a [cultural] desert and we have no right to say to him: “You can’t come to La Fémis because you might feel bad here.”’

Simon described the way she framed most of her shots from a profile view: ‘I want you to be in the middle. I was in the middle. And that’s why you see the juror’s discussions, because otherwise you would be a juror as a viewer: you would be judging the candidates, and I hope you’re not.’ The clean neutrality with which she shoots and edits the film allows her audience to become sensitized to all of the small signifiers of class and status that bleed in around the edges. For instance, in a lingering close-up on the hands of a student whose interview has already ended, as he slowly gathers all the electronics he’s removed from his pockets, we get a sense of the privilege required to feel entitled to take your time.

Much as in her 1992 film Récréations (Recreation), a Lord of the Flies-esque study of the schoolyard habits of young children, Simon imbues the closed environment of La Fémis with all of the messy social structures of the larger world. She has described Récréations – which documents shifting alliances, budding tyrants, feats of bravery, kindness and cruelty – as a ‘rehearsal for real life’. Les Concours is less a rehearsal than a petri dish – society writ small, showing power structures replicating themselves through a series of slight gestures.

Main image: Claire Simon, Les Concours (The Graduation), 2017, film still. Courtesy: Andolfi & Wide House

Sierra Pettengill is a filmmaker and archivist based in New York.