The School Of Life (L’école buissonnière)

France (2017) Dir. Nicolas Vanier

What exactly is freedom? This might not seem like a primary concern in this charming French drama given the conventional main storyline and clarion call to preserve the wonders of nature, but The School Of Life does tacitly ponder such existentialist queries. As someone who grew up on a farm, film Nicolas Vanier knows whereof he speaks in representing the animal kingdom.

Paris 1927 and the surplus of post war orphans is causing a strain on orphanages. Célestine (Valérie Karsenti), a maid for a wealthy lord in Sologne, is summoned to one orphanage as the only name linked to a young boy, Paul (Jean Scandel). She initially refuses until she witnesses Paul being slapped by the brutish director and changes her mind.

Arriving in Sologne, Paul is left alone while Célestine and her gamekeeper husband Borel (Éric Elmosnino) work at the manor of Count de la Fresnaye (François Berléand). He befriends the tetchy but charismatic poacher Totoche (François Cluzet), living off the count’s land and avoiding being caught by Borel.

From this synopsis you might wonder who the main protagonist is of this story and what does one have to do with the other. And how does the idea freedom fit into all of this? These are valid questions and whilst it may not seem possible, Vanier manages to address each of these issues, although to what level of satisfaction will be subjective.

The message is people’s attitudes can be changed, and in this instance, the catalyst is the worst kept secret among the people of Sologne. There is a fairly predictable mystery running through this story of Paul’s true heritage. Célestine declaring herself the cousin of Paul’s mother at the orphanage is perfectly plausible but we soon suspect subterfuge.

Vanier teases us with many possibilities, such as Célestine’s defiance in assisting Totoche to avoid her husband’s ambushes and their late night trysts in Borel’s absence. Paul’s age and him growing up in Paris ostensibly rules out them being his parents, yet the more people Paul meets in the village the more curious reactions he gets from asking questions, widening the scope of this mystery.

Meanwhile, Paul is enjoying his daily adventures with Totoche and his (female) dog Boy as they scavenge the forests of the Count’s vast estate for their next meal, be it fish, meat or vegetation. Totoche is an inventor of handy gadgets, his greatest creation being the rotating soles of his boots, allowing him to walk in a forward direction yet leave footprints facing the opposite way – handy in throwing Borel off the trail.

Expanding on the freedom concept, the central symbol of this is a legendary stag that arrives every year at the estate as per its nature which the Count has always wanted to catch. Like Totoche, this stag means no harm to anyone but to the gentry it is considered fair game if only for the kudos of killing what is considered a local myth due to the rarity of its sightings.

So what life lessons does Paul learn? Apart from some handy skills and the wonders of nature, it is about the value of life itself. Rough treatment at the orphanage has given him an empathy with animals being killed for food. But as Totoche explains: “For the fox to live, the pheasant has to die. For the pheasant to live, insects have to die. For insects to live, plants have to die. That’s nature. Life, death, life.

Not all lessons are enriching but we have to learn them anyway. The fable of the stag becomes more than symbolic placed in tandem with the arrival of the Count’s obnoxious spoiled son Bertrand (Thomas Durand), the de facto antagonist of this tale, albeit a little too late, only stirring things up in the third act. A class war begins but it is not just the humans Bertrand considers beneath him.

The message might be unambiguous and the delivery is hardly subtle yet Vanier avoids the role of preacher in putting his view across. The desired feel good ending is achieved and while we may not have been bludgeoned with a self-righteous entreaty in favour of vegetarianism, it is hard not to feel a deeper appreciation and concern for the woodland inhabitants after watching this .

However, there is a contrasting dichotomy of Totoche and other poachers eating rabbits and pheasant because it is natural to do so, before feeling morally compelled to protect a mighty stag which will assuredly incur accusations of hypocrisy. The “moral” part of this judgement is relative to a development which would be a spoiler to discuss here, but it is born out of noble concerns and returns to the earlier point about learning hard lessons.    

Vanier makes things easy to digest through the superb acting of the cast, headed by a cheekily irascible François Cluzet and an exceptional debut from young Jean Scandel as Paul – a future heartthrob in the making if he doesn’t let his fame go to his head, mark my words ladies! I don’t know if it was CGI or the real thing, but the stag was absolutely majestic, dominating its scenes like it was the main star.

This is also a very cinematic production, rife with swooping aerial camera shots of the expansive estate and the vivid tableaux of the verdant woodlands, shimmering lakes and the microphotography of the animals in their natural habitat. Some editing is a little choppy, upsetting the natural rhythm of the story and causing too many jumps in the timeline, making the story feel rushed and uneven in places.

Anyone can watch this film as a straight forward, relaxing light family drama just as you can focus on the pro-nature mission. The two deftly go hand in hand without necessarily being beholden to one another which is quite an achievement in itself. The School Of Life is open for registration so make sure you attend, as there will be questions afterwards!