'The Freshmen' ('Premiere annee'): Film Review

Denis Manin/31 Juin Films
Lightweight Lilti.

French director Thomas Lilti ('Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor') goes to university in his fourth feature, which stars Vincent Lacoste and William Lebghil.

The previous two films of France's resident doctor-turned-filmmaker, Thomas Lilti, were called Irreplaceable (Medecin de campagne) and Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor, and both were inspired by his own days in the medical profession. Hippocrates (2014), which cast a then up-and-coming Vincent Lacoste as a bumbling hospital intern, premiered at the Cannes Critics' Week and became an unexpectedly robust box-office hit, while 2016's Irreplaceable, which starred Intouchables' Francois Cluzet as a rural doctor, did even better.

The success of these titles, which also sold offshore, no doubt led to the unchecked — or at least, unchecked-feeling — liberty to make The Freshmen (Premiere Annee), a rambling and semi-impressionistic account of two medical students in their first year that feels like an exercise in nostalgia that will mostly be of interest to doctors or doctors-turned-directors who long for the relatively uncomplicated period in their lives when they were just expected to cram as many diseases and their salves as possible into their heads for their exams.

Much less likely to play well abroad and conspicuously absent from the fall festival calendar — except for an opening-night slot at the recent El Gouna Film Festival — this is the kind of talky and observational French film that does best on home turf, where it is closing in on an impressive one million admissions. The much-increased star power of actor-comedian Lacoste (Sorry AngelLolo) undoubtedly helped in this regard, with his perennially youthful looks helping to ensure that barely anyone will notice that his latest character is probably a little younger than the one he played in Hippocrates four years ago.

Benjamin (William Lebghil, one of the waiters from last year’s TIFF closer, C’est La Vie) is one of the 2,000 high-school graduates starting his medical studies at the start of The Freshmen, though, as the film explains, only about 300 of them will make it to the other side. (This numerus clausus system, which limits the number of students with access to subsequent years to only the very best, has been heavily criticized, and the Macron government recently announced it will be abolished in 2020.) One of the results of the system is those that really want to become doctors but aren’t the group's top undergraduates can become “stuck” in the first year. One of those students is Antoine (Lacoste), who is trying for the third time to finally get the grades needed to succeed when he first meets Benjamin.

Soon, the two start hanging out. Perhaps also because Benjamin’s father’s a surgeon, Antoine hopes to figure out what he got wrong in the previous two years while spending time with his new friend, while Benjamin stands to profit from the fact Antoine already knows his way around the university and has taken these courses before. It’s a perfect platonic match, so to speak, which is why there isn’t all that much credible friction between the two young men and the film thus lacks the character or story development of a more classical drama in which dramatic highs and lows pave the way toward a resolution. Even when Antoine momentarily goes crazy in front of the entire class, starts correcting a teacher and the outcome is pretty dramatic, it feels more like an anomalous blip on the radar than something that’s been organically developed and anchored in the reality of the story.

Most of the time, Lilti prefers to simply bask in the presence of his protagonists as they study and hang out. As a result, the viewer becomes a sort of invisible third friend of the duo as they are often up to their necks in books and devise tricks to try and explain or remember the complex things they are studying.

Throughout, there is clearly a lot of affection for the routines of university life at the Faculty of Medicine, with its study groups in which peers seemingly help each other though there’s always the faint worry the competition might be pulling ahead; the enormous and anonymous exam halls and exam rituals; the mad rush toward the boards each time results are posted; and so on. But for those who haven’t studied medicine in France — or anything else or elsewhere for that matter — the meticulous evocation of this world is involving in an anthropological way, though not something that’s really captivating on its own for some 90 minutes without the structural aid of an involving story or characters that reveal something of their own emotional complexity in reaction to all the stress and hard work they put themselves through. It is a tricky balance that Lilti, who is credited as the sole screenwriter for the first time in his career, doesn't manage to get right here.

That said, Lacoste and Lebghil, who earlier co-starred in Riad Sattouf’s satirical comedy Jacky in the Kingdom of Women, have low-key but always believable chemistry as the two study buddies, even if their personalities beyond their positions as naive freshman and experienced “first year” are a tad bland. Indeed, the last act’s grand gesture of friendship feels much more like a screenwriter’s conceit than something that the two men depicted would actually want to do and accept.

Lilti’s regular director of photography, Nicolas Gaurin, shoots everything with a sure hand, while production designer Philippe Van Herwijnen convincingly contrasts the students’ tiny living quarters in Paris with the cavernous but always busy halls and libraries of the university. Despite their obvious differences in size, both locations feel too cramped and full at almost all times. The top technical contribution comes from the trio Alexandre Lier, Sylvain Ohrel and Nicolas Weil, whose pacey and upbeat score at least never lets the film feel like an endless lecture. 

Production companies: 31 Juin Films, Les Films du Parc
Cast: Vincent Lacoste, William Lebghil, Michel Lerousseau, Darina Al Joundi, Benoit Di Marco, Graziella Delerm, Guillaume Clerice, Alexandre Blazy, Noemi Silvania
Writer-director: Thomas Lilti
Producers: Agnes Vallee, Emmanuel Barraux
Director of photography: Nicolas Gaurin
Production designer: Philippe Van Herwijnen
Costume designer: Dorothe Guiraud
Editor: Lilian Corbeille
Music: Alexandre Lier, Sylvain Ohrel, Nicolas Weil
Casting: Julie Navarro
Venue: Utopia Luxembourg

Sales: Le Pacte

In French
92 minutes