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Unabashedly old-fashioned, Nicolas Vanier’s heartfelt period feature School of Life fondly references a gentler time, before World War II reshaped the landscape of Europe and the trajectory of French society. Similar to Vanier’s 2013 Alps-set Belle & Sebastian, his latest pic warmly celebrates the invigorating virtues of the French countryside, this time centered on the Loire Valley.
This assuredly crafted exploration of the intricacies of early 20th-century social stratification, which was released in France in October, soars on the strengths of sympathetic scripting and striking wildlands cinematography, although it’s likely to reach wider audiences only via film festivals and specialized streaming services.
In the aftermath of Europe’s Great War, thousands of children lost their parents, including Paul (Jean Scandel), relegated to a bleak Paris orphanage after the death of his father at the front, his mother having died in childbirth. Unexpectedly, he’s plucked from his cheerless lodgings by Mme. Celestine Borel (Valerie Karsenti), who says she’s a distant relative taking him to live with her over the summer (notably without any assurances about adopting him).
Vanier achieves this swift synopsis even before the opening credits roll over scenes of a steam engine powering across the countryside south of Paris to arrive in the Sologne region of the Loire Valley, in the vicinity of Orleans. Plunked down in the farmhouse that Celestine shares with her gruff husband, Borel (Eric Elmosnino), a gamekeeper on the sprawling estate owned and overseen by the Count de la Fresnaye (Francois Berleand), Paul finds himself entirely confounded by the peculiarities of country life.
Although he’s eager to learn more about the relationship between Celestine and his deceased parents, Paul avoids the widowed Count’s manor where Celestine works as a domestic. On his wanderings around the property, though, he soon encounters the enigmatic hunter and fisherman Totoche (Francois Cluzet), a true man of the land. Nowadays, adults might tell a kid like Paul, “Don’t go near that hobo or his broken-down boat,” referring to Totoche’s rustic riverside lodgings.
Technically a poacher, Totoche shamelessly helps himself to the bounty of the Count’s estate, although the property owner sympathetically turns a blind eye. Borel considers his rival the equivalent of a frontier outlaw, however, and swears to bring him to justice. Ever observant, Paul notices a peculiar connection between Totoche and Celestine, using his discovery to persuade a reluctant Totoche to apprentice him in the poaching trade and incidentally reveal some clues behind the mystery of his parentage.
This relationship between the poacher and the domestic similarly plays a central role in Jean Renoir’s 1939 classic The Rules of the Game, not coincidentally set and shot in the Sologne. And while School of Life hardly sets out to satirize the Paris smart set of the 1930s, Vanier and co-screenwriter Jerome Tonnerre (who also wrote Renoir, a biopic on the French filmmaker) express concerns regarding the period’s distinct social divide quite similar to Renoir’s own.
In Vanier’s version, it’s the tension between Totoche and the Count, who in their love of the land are perhaps more alike than either might admit, that helps anchor the film. His familiar features and twinkling eyes obscured behind a bushy beard, Cluzet (Intouchables) plays Totoche with verve and a sincere specificity of character that nods to the great tradition of French humanist cinema.
Berleand (Entre amis), ensconced in the Count’s manor house, doesn’t exert a similar degree of influence over the cast, although he turns out to be a key player in Paul’s emergence from childhood. Young Scandel, in his first feature role, confidently grasps the boy’s struggle to adjust to an unfamiliar environment, while enthusiastically embodying his affinity for the outdoors.
Unlike Belle & Sebastian, which was adapted from a popular TV series, with School of Life, Vanier succeeds in crafting an admirably original film that unaffectedly draws upon his boyhood growing up in the Sologne, as well as his numerous nature documentaries and adventure narratives exploring the relationships between humans and wild places.
Gorgeous woodland scenery and spectacular wildlife photography cast a magical spell under Vanier’s skillful direction, capably supported by Belle & Sebastian cinematographer Eric Guichard and an ace team of animal wranglers.
Production companies: Radar Films, France 2 Cinema, StudioCanal
Cast: Francois Cluzet, Jean Scandel, Eric Elmosnino, Francois Berleand, Valerie Karsenti
Director: Nicolas Vanier
Screenwriters: Jerome Tonnerre, Nicolas Vanier
Producers: Clement Miserez, Matthieu Warter
Director of photography: Eric Guichard
Costume designer: Adelaide Gosselin
Editor: Raphaelle Urtin
Music: Armand Amar
Venue: COLCOA French Film Festival
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