‘The Graduation’ (‘Le Concours’): Venice Review

Wide House
An insightful film school chronicle that will appeal most to those in the know.

Director Claire Simon (‘Gare du Nord’) documents the admissions process of France’s most prestigious filmmaking institution.

“Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym,” is an oft-quoted witticism that, as any decent cinephile will tell you, is a line from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. But what about those who teach film school?

In the fly-on-the-wall documentary The Graduation (Le Concours), director Claire Simon (Gare du Nord) focuses her camera on the five-month-long admissions process of France’s most famous filmmaking academy: La Femis — a state-run, extremely selective and generously funded institution whose alumni include art house heavyweights Francois Ozon and Arnaud Desplechin, as well as budding auteurs Celine Sciamma (Girlhood), Rebecca Zlotowski (Planetarium), Thomas Cailley (Love at First Fight) and Alice Winocour (Disorder).

Chronicling the lengthy, and very chatty, examinations that thousands of hopefuls undergo to be among the 40 chosen students each year, the rather misleadingly titled The Graduation (the French title translates to “the test” or “the competition”) offers a few worthy insights into La Femis’ unique method of picking its pupils. But without any real context provided for those not already aware of the school’s elite stature and specific pedagogy, this Venice Classics title may have a hard time finding itself selected outside of festivals and Francophone venues, with possibilities for pubcast play throughout Western Europe.

Ultimately revealing more about those who do the choosing than the applicants themselves, Simon — who runs La Femis’ directing department and has made some memorable documentaries (most notably Recreations (1992) and Coute que coute (1995)) — was granted access to behind-closed-doors discussions that selectors engage in when evaluating contenders, who themselves participate in a three-phase test: The first part involves a personal project and film analysis, the second a practical exam for their specific department (directing, editing, sound, etc.) the third a “grand oral” round where they are interrogated by a jury of Gallic film professionals headed up by a major director. (Past jury heads include Olivier Assayas, Benoit Jacquot and the Oscar-nominated Abderrahmane Sissako.)

What’s special about La Femis compared to most film schools is that there are no real “teachers,” but only members of the local movie industry who lead workshops and engage in one-on-one training sessions with the students, allowing them to hone their craft over a four-year program that takes place in the old Pathe studios in Paris’ picturesque Montmartre. It’s an ideal setting for what, during the admissions period, feels like a typically French affair: lots and lots of talk about what constitutes a good filmmaker, or at least the making of one.

Some of those debates can be intriguing here, such as when experienced directors sit around and discuss whether aspiring directors have what it takes to make great films (the verdict: who knows?). Others can be fairly grating — especially when a trio of Gallic screenwriters offer up less-than-constructive criticism of pitches heard from writing candidates, begging the viewer to wonder what these experts have written themselves.

Another sequence, taking place during the “grand oral” sessions and involving an overzealous bartender from the provinces who displeases most of the jury, underlines how La Femis could perhaps be accused of promoting a certain socio-cultural order that is predominantly white, middle-to-upper class and well schooled in saying exactly what jurors want to hear. (In recent years, the “Femis” label has not always been a positive one in France.)

In the end, it’s hard to tell whether Simon is actually critical of her establishment’s methods or whether she fully embraces them, although she is clearly compassionate toward the applicants and offers a reasonable payoff when we finally learn who made the cut. Still, it’s likely that those viewers most invested in The Graduation will be young French cinephiles looking for tips about how to get into La Femis in the first place, even if a few of them could be turned off by a process that feels both selective and discriminatory, and not always in the best way. The latter ones may finally decide to skip film school altogether and just do it.

Production companies: Andolfi, Mouvement
Director: Claire Simon
Producer: Arnaud Dommerc
Director of photography: Claire Simon, in collaboration with Aurelien Py
Editor: Luc Forveille, in collaboration with Lea Masson
Sales: Wide House

In French
115 minutes