A Paris Education (Mes provinciales)

France (2018) Dir. Jean-Paul Civeyrac

Is it possible for a film to be so Meta that it becomes the very thing it might or might not be allegorically critiquing and/or celebrating, losing all sense of its own identity in the process, yet still very much an incisive and independently minded work in its own right? And if that sounds pretentious, well, it should. I think.

Etienne (Andranic Manet) leaves behind his family and girlfriend Lucie (Diane Rouxel) in Lyon to study film at the Universite Paris 8 in the capital. Aside from roommate Valentina (Jenna Thiam), the first people to welcome Etienne are cheery Jean-Noel (Gonzague Van Bervesseles) and arrogant Mathias (Corentin Fila). When it comes to film, Mathius holds strong opinions about what cinema should be, but has yet to produce any work of his own.

As Etienne becomes embroiled in life in Paris, he soon ends things with Lucie and enjoys dalliances with other women, as well as being seduced by Mathias as a mentor for challenging convention, putting a strain on his friendship with Jean-Noel. Over time, the more Etienne learns about cinema and life from various different sources which clash with Mathius’ opinion, the more he questions his worthiness as a filmmaker.

Referring to the opening question o this review, I suppose I was really asking whether a film about pretentious French student filmmakers who sit around smoking, drinking, discussing film, poetry, and politics, and have lots of sex which runs for 136 minutes and is shot in black and white can be anything other than pretentious itself? I am not familiar with director Jean-Paul Civeyrac but I don’t suspect this was his intention.

More likely, A Paris Education was maybe intended as a wry look at the pretension of young filmmakers who adopt a certain stance or affectations to their personalities to appear more intellectual than they really are to stand out. Conversely, it might mocking those who think they know it all because they went to film school and learned about obscure masters of the art and this is a cautionary tale to pull their head in.

However, I imagine most people will view this in the first instance I suggested since it does reek of pretentiousness, but with a detectable sense of self-awareness to say “This is what you think French cinema is so what’s your problem?”. The problem is, many people will be put off by it for this very reason, but I doubt Civeyrac cares, as others will be perceptive enough to make their own satirical interpretation out of it.

What it boils down to is the characterisations. There is no shortage of tropes in the line up – Etienne is the wide-eyed boy from the suburbs with big ideas who finds himself out of his depth and tries to conform by siding with the intellectual elite, whilst Mathius is every pompous, know-it-all who basks in his own intransigence and everyone else is wrong – yet I am sure a lot of people will find at least one of them identifiable.

Since French cinema has been built on a reputation for being verbose, Civeyrac obliges with much of screen time devoted to prolix group discussions, conducted in a manner only seen in French cinema: talking in a deeply philosophical and authoritative manner with no respect for the other’s opinion Then there is the presentation – this is set in the present day yet the aesthetic screams 1969. Everyone wears bohemian attire, sports long floppy hairstyles, and the most modern filmmaker discussed is Dario Argento.

But again, maybe Civeyrac is playing up to this because it what we supposedly expect from French cinema. To that end, Mathius is a composite of every obnoxious smart arse character in French film history, and it isn’t just film fans her argues with either. After Valentina, Etienne’s next roommate is Annabelle (Sophie Verbeeck), a political activist and firm believer in action over words, and Mathius upsets her by saying cinema can heal the world better than protests.

Cause for thought I am sure, but it only adds Annabelle to the list of people who want to give Mathius a slap (which grows as he film progresses) though his biggest crime is not his caustic opinions but his lack of backing them up, refusing to show anyone his own films. Most people would have sent him packing ages ago for being such a blowhard, but as long as gullible marks like Etienne exist, Mathius can get away with being a dick.

For a film about filmmaking, there is hardly any of it shown, one short scene at that is it.  Civeyrac instead focuses on the people who make films rather than the mechanics of the job, and whilst he doesn’t shine much of a positive light on them, there is something oddly compelling about the world he shares with us, as clichéd as it is. And it is possible it will resonate with cineastes, perhaps even delight them, to hear the young characters hold classic directors like Ford or Vigo (per Mathius) in veneration.

I would be curious to know if the cast know these filmmakers of whom they speak fondly of and watch; if not, making this film will have been a real education for them. Andranic Manet is in his first starring role and is in every scene. He has an unassuming presence, slightly gauche and barely emotive but it takes talent to be this vapid. That Mathius is SO objectionable means Corentin Fila does a great job but credit goes to Gonzague Van Bervesseles for being the film’s glue as Jean-Noel.

A Paris Education will prove a divisive work depending on how you choose to view it – as a satire, an allegory, an ode to cinephilia, or an attack on art snobbery – and either be 136-minutes well spent or 136-minutes too long. And if this is truly how the French have conversations, it’s a wonder the country hasn’t imploded!