How I Came to Hate Maths (Comment j’ai deteste les maths): Film Review

How I Came to Hate Maths - H - 2013
Number-crunching doc is more engaging than its subject would seem, but doesn’t quite nail down the formula.

Fields Medal laureate Cedric Villani is one of many characters in director Olivier Peyon’s portrait of modern-day mathematicians.

Anyone who’s suffered through a high school algebra course has certainly wondered to themselves: What’s the point of all this? That’s the question French filmmaker Olivier Peyon attempts to answer in his globetrotting documentary How I Came to Hate Maths (Comment j’ai deteste les maths).

Chock-full of interviews with some of today’s brightest mathematical minds, including Fields Medal winner Cedric Villani, hedge fund guru James Simons and French historian Jean Dhombres, this classically assembled exposé manages to make light of its weighty topic, while remaining altogether comprehensible. Yet it also digresses too much, covering everything from French curriculums in the 1960’s to the benefits of applied vs. pure mathematics to the recent subprime crisis, resulting in a study whose parts tend to feel more convincing than its whole. Following a modest theatrical release in Gaul, festival slots and VOD are Maths’ most likely probability.

Featuring close to twenty different interviewees, the film begins with a montage of students across the world complaining about math classes, eventually bringing in experts Villani, Dhombres, as well as Nantes-based teacher Francois Sauvageot, to explain why mathematics can be both beloved by a few and reviled by the rest of us. (These early sections, however engaging, suffer from a lack of on-screen titles to explain who’s who.)

Soon we catch up with the eccentric Villani as he arrives in India to accept the Fields Medal, which is the math-world equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Dressed in a vintage suit, flowing silk tie, spider brooch, and seen walking around barefoot, the fast-talking dandy -- who received his prize for (brace yourselves): “proofs of nonlinear Landau damping and convergence to equilibrium for the Boltzmann equation” -- seems like the perfect poster boy for a field that, to many, is filled with geniuses as passionate about their research as they are entirely removed from reality.

Indeed, “passion” is a term that creeps up a lot in Peyon’s different interviews, with certain experts referring to the “beauty” of a perfect equation and likening their discipline to an art form. While most viewers can only speculate on what that means, the filmmaker does attempt to show a few practical cases, including how students in Berkeley, CA are now being taught math in a manner that relies less on textbooks than on thought-provoking demonstrations, and how Columbia associate prof Eitan Grinspun’s studies in geometric modeling can be used for the deployment of transatlantic cables.

But as much as they try to link up their various narrative strands, Peyon and editors Tina Baz (Les Invisibles) and Fabrice Rouaud (House of Tolerance) have a hard time finding a single through-line to hold it all together. Even the question posed by their film’s title is only partially answered -- particularly in the section dealing with French “modern mathematics” programs of the 60’s and 70’s -- and more or less forgotten in the movie’s final stretch, which attempts to explain math’s connection to financial markets and the subprime crisis in way too short a time span. (This seems like a subject befitting for a separate, stand-alone documentary.)

Perhaps Maths would have worked better as a series of short TV portraits, or else as a feature focusing primarily on the work of one man (such as the exuberant Villani), because it ultimately offers up both too much and too little, even if Peyon manages to turn a seemingly dull subject into something rather entertaining and, at times, enlightening.

Production values are sharp, with DP Alexis Kavyrchine (Tous au Larzac) doing his best with a lot of unattractive office spaces and not necessarily photogenic people. Music choices are on the upbeat side, including the wistful Nancy Sinatra-Lee Hazelwood ballad, “My Elusive Dreams.”

Opens: Wednesday, Nov. 27 (in France)

Production companies: Haut et Court Distribution, Zadig Films, Arte France Cinema, CNDP

Cast: Cedric Villani, Jim Simons, Jean Dhombres, Francois Sauvageot

Director: Olivier Peyon

Screenwriters: Olivier Peyon, Amandine Escoffier

Producers: Laurence Petit, Carole Scotta, Bruno Nahon

Executive producer: Eugenie Michel-Villette

Director of photography: Alexis Kavyrchine

Music: Nicolas Kuhn, Olivier Peyon

Editors: Tina Baz, Fabrice Rouaud

Sales agent: Doc & Film International

No rating, 103 minutes