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The inspirational teacher movie has never really been a staple of French cinema. From classics like Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, which depicted schoolteachers as cruel taskmasters maintaining a draconian sense of order, to contemporary comic hits like Les Profs series, which depicts them as total idiots, there are few films that make you want to sit in a French classroom and learn.
Yet while there may be no Gallic equivalent to Dead Poets Society or Stand and Deliver, there have been a handful of uplifting school movies released over the past years, starting with 2008 Palme d’Or winner The Class and moving on to tearjerkers like the Holocaust-themed Once in a Lifetime and the recent Venice entry La Melodie, which plays like a French cousin to Music of the Heart.
To that list can now be added actor-director Yvan Attal’s Le Brio, a punchy, well-performed if somewhat formulaic two-hander about an Arab girl from the projects who learns to communicate en bon francais at the hands of a racist white professor. Such a feel-good scenario can definitely seem a bit contrived, if not downright manipulative, yet the characters are compelling enough to avoid becoming major clichés, while stars Camelia Jordana and Daniel Auteuil prove to be a winning pair. Released wide by Pathe in late November, Attal’s fifth feature at the helm could see good grades at home, though it may be too broad to find much traction outside Europe.
Written by Attal along with Victor Saint Macary, Yael Langmann and Noe Debre, the script was inspired by the annual rhetoric competitions held in France’s most prestigious law schools, where students are invited to plead on a wide range of subjects in the most eloquent and imaginative way possible. (Such competitions were chronicled in the documentary Speak Up (A voix haute), which was released earlier this year.)
Entering the contest for the first time is the feisty and stubborn Neila (Jordan), who hails from the Paris banlieue of Creteil and is in her freshman year of law studies at the conservative Panthoen-Assas University. On the very first day of class, Neila is berated by her professor Pierre Mazard (Auteuil) in front of the entire amphitheater, with the latter dishing out a racist rant that quickly goes viral. As a result, Mazard is reprimanded by his boss and forced to coach Neila for the concours d’eloquence as a way to demonstrate that he’s not a complete bigot.
Thus ensues a rather predictable series of ups and downs as Mazard lectures Neila on the art of speech, citing Schopenhauer and Rabelais, having her read Nietzsche out loud with a pen in her mouth, forcing her to orate on the Paris metro and repeating his favorite axiom over and over: “The truth doesn’t matter — it’s about being right.” Meanwhile, Neila tries to balance her newfound communication skills with life at home in the projects, where she sparks a romance with a local boy (Yasin Houicha) who doesn’t exactly share her capacity for rhetoric. Back in Paris, the lonely Mazard contends with his own alcoholism and loneliness, proving that the best teachers don’t necessarily make for the best people.
As generic as this may all sound, Attal laces the action with a fair amount of comedy while providing a duo of well-observed lead characters who never turn into complete caricatures of the bitter intellectual or striving inner-city student. Mazard constantly toes the line between clever jesting and pure discrimination, egging Neila on to get the best out of her yet unable to keep his more questionable opinions to himself. Neila is quick to respond to her professor’s provocations but gradually finds herself won over by his tough-love encouragements — that is until their relationship hits a major roadblock in the third act.
Things are probably all-too easily resolved in the end, while the idea of a privileged white male, and a fairly bigoted one at that, successfully schooling a working-class Arab girl on the best way to speak French may seem like a racial stereotype in and of itself. The fact that Le Brio avoids crumbling under the weight of such pretensions is a testament to Attal’s lightness of touch as a director, as well as to the skills of his two stars, with newcomer Jordana (Cherchez la femme) and veteran Auteuil (Hidden) offering up several juicy verbal bouts alongside a few scenes of genuine emotion.
Polished in a very Hollywood sense — Attal even uses the same opening Marvin Gaye song as J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year — the $11.5 million film flies by at an efficient 95 minutes and is saddled with a strong technical package, including widescreen cinematography from Remy Chevrin (Love Songs) that steeps the action in a fair amount of shadow and grain.
Production companies: Chapter 2, Moonshaker, Pathe Production, France 2 Cinema, CN6 Productions
Cast: Camelia Jordana, Daniel Auteuil, Yasin Houicha, Nozha Khouadra, Nicolas Vaude, Jean-Baptiste Lafarge
Director: Yvan Attal
Screenwriters: Victor Saint Macary, Yael Langmann, Noe Debre, Yvan Attal, in collaboration with Bryan Marciano, based on an original idea by Victor Saint Macary
Producers: Dimitri Rassam, Benjamin Elalouf
Director of photography: Remy Chevrin
Production designer: Michele Abbe
Costume designer: Carine Sarfati
Editor: Celia Lafitedupont
Composer: Michael Brook
Casting director: Gigi Akoka
Sales: Pathe International
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