Le concours is an observational documentary about those many hopefuls who, each year, apply to enter La Fémis – France’s most prestigious institution for the practical training of filmmakers. According to Claire Simon, the central image that came to define its construction arrived by accident, on the very first day of shooting. Setting up a high-angle shot from within La Fémis, she waited for new applicants to arrive for their initial exam.
What Simon then recorded was a charged, even solemn ritual: a small crowd of eager hopefuls already waiting, well before the appointed hour, at the enormous gate, until an official gives the order to a guard to let them in. As Simon reflected in an interview with Positif magazine, it was as if these youngsters were citizens silently demanding: “We want to enter the castle!” At that moment, she realised a great deal was at stake in this documentary subject, on both a personal and social level. The entrance process is fiercely competitive: thousands apply each year for only sixty available spots, and (as we learn from the documentary) many re-apply time and again.
(Note: The “graduation” of the British release title is a misleading translation for concours, which refers to this selection process; the USA version “competition” is a little better. When we actually see the hundreds of La Fémis applicants packed into a large hall, the literal English association of a crowded airport concourse does, however, come to mind!)
That opening camera set-up also gave Simon a point-of-view to which she rigorously adheres for the entire film: it is made from within the institution – but not as official propaganda or a simple celebration of its history, philosophy and achievements.
Applicants pass through three stages of examination: a written exercise in scene analysis (from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Penance , as it happens!); a practical workshop; and an in-depth interview conducted by a panel of industry professionals. But Simon’s focus is more on the processes whereby the sifting and judging of candidates takes place. Therefore, its focus is far more on those who work for La Fémis (from administrators and jurors to those who answer the telephones) than on those enduring the examination process.
How easy it would have been for Simon to pick out a few candidates (perhaps a group of friends) before this first day, observe them in their daily lives, and then follow them through the ordeal to triumph or heartbreak (which was, loosely, the approach she took in her disarmingly touching Young Solitude ) … That would have resulted in the type of conventional documentary which TV producers today demand: one with an overarching “human story”, eliciting our identification as spectators with its heroes and heroines.
Simon takes another path. Her method is closer to that of Frederick Wiseman, whom she readily cites as an influence – because, as already indicated, she traces the workings of an institution. Yet there is a crucial difference: Simon is less interested than Wiseman in the politics of power, and more drawn to the element of fantasy and desire in social life – a tendency evident in her other documentaries (such as The Woods Dreams Are Made Of, 2015) and her fiction features (Ça brûle, 2006).
This sometimes subterranean element of emotion gives Le concours a special richness. Simon lets us observe, in the evaluations of the candidates, the workings of class-based prejudice, the tussles for and against equal-opportunity admission policies, and the often intractable influence of purely subjective bias. The position held by Simon (who has herself been head of this institution’s film-direction department) is clear: if people agree to be servants of the state, their decision-making process should be open to public scrutiny.
Yet, for all of that – and this record is full of the juicy details of disagreement and interpersonal tension – La Fémis is still a place of idealism and dreams. Formerly the IDHEC from 1944 to 1985, La Fémis is structured upon eight departments, ranging from direction to screenwriting, design to distribution. Its stellar graduates have included François Ozon, Marina de Van, Arnaud Desplechin and Laetitia Masson (who figures prominently on one of the panels documented).
Underpinning everything we see, whether on the faces of the hopeful students or in the deliberations of their adjudicating elders, is a fervent belief in cinema as a personal, expressive, engaged art. Brief snippets we receive of introductory speeches from the likes of the institution’s former director, Marc Nicolas (who died in December 2016), and critic Alain Bergala, emphasise the lack of a fixed, pedagogical curriculum at La Fémis: instead, professionals are brought in to impart their knowledge and experience through master classes and related activities.
Naturally, even within the umbrella of this cinema-as-art ethos, there is room for differences in the conference rooms of La Fémis. The poor girl who goes blank and cannot recollect the title of a single film she’s seen is at a clear disadvantage amidst this reigning gang of cinephiles; but the guy who (as an annoyed assessor describes him) “masturbates with Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph while watching his own rushes” may not fare any better in the final countdown!
© Adrian Martin September 2017