Privileged Position: A Paris Education (Jean-Paul Civeyrac, 2018)

by Daniel Garrett Volume 27, Issue 8-9-10 / October 2023 14 minutes (3421 words)

A Paris Education (Image source, Kino Lorber) 

Aesthetic principles, similar to social practices, tend to come and go in cycles of order and freedom, form and expression, idealism and realism; although sometimes these different modes coexist. Films were shown to audiences in 1895 Paris by the Lumiere brothers, Auguste and Louis, who had invented the motion picture film camera, the cinematograph, in Lyon in France, with films by Georges Méliès, Leon Gaumont, and Charles Pathé following. French cinema knew technical invention, intellectual content, historical vision, and poetic expression; and despite the disruptions of two twentieth-century world wars, the industry grew. The faith in authorship developed with the examples of visual creators such as Alice Guy, Abel Gance, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Carne, Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, and Agnes Varda. The French new wave in cinema, which emphasized naturalism through the use of genuine locations and open narratives, and rebelled against high tradition with its embrace of popular genres, emerged with works such as Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, works that made legends of their creators; and it is to that new wave, or its myth, that Jean-Paul Civeyrac seems to pay homage in his film A Paris Education, opening with lovers in bed, a young man and woman, Etienne and Lucie, anticipating his move from the provinces to Paris for formal study of cinema. She, Lucie, worries about being forgotten by him, Etienne. A Paris Education, an intelligent film that swoons over art, is a tribute to the hungry passions of youth, the entrancing allure of cinema, and the complicated and seductive promise of a cosmopolitan city.

The film A Paris Education is set in the contemporary world, during Emmanuel Macron’s run for president. Emmanuel Macron was young, but he did not represent youth: a student of philosophy and public affairs, a civil servant, and an investment banker, before gaining important national posts as deputy secretary to France’s president Francois Holland, and then minister of the economy to the prime minister Manuel Valls, Macron was a figure of the establishment. Youth is rebellion. A Paris Education premiered at the Berlin film festival in 2018; yet it, unlike other films of French multicultural life (such as Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables or Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine/Hate), does not delve deep into the changes that have occurred in the world since Breathless director Jean-Luc Godard’s own youth. Those changes help explain why someone like Macron—once an avowed socialist—could be elected then reviled as too establishment.

In A Paris Education Etienne (Andranic Manet), a heterosexual white male, a large, shaggy young man, gives Lucie (Diane Rouxel) a copy of Emil Bronte’s Wuthering Heights as a parting gift, and his parents invite Lucie to visit them, before Etienne takes the train for Paris. He, arriving from Lyon, moves into a shared student apartment and begins attending parties full of ambition, art talk, fast friends, and flirtation. Etienne’s life in Paris, with his distance, new discoveries, and easy affairs, does make a relationship with Lucie less central to his life—and allows the viewer to see, again, some of the timeless aspects of youth amid a changing culture. If you have been young in Paris or New York or London or Chicago or Rome or Berlin, you may recognize some of the adventures and conversations. I find it impossible not to think of my own college life in New York. Many of the students met by Etienne, are from the provinces, and some are women, some people of color, and some have ideals other than achieving distinction in cinema, such as political participation and progress. The political talks tend to be intense but general, vague. This is the time of Emmanuel Macron’s rise, his campaign for the French presidency (won in 2017); but the actual content of that campaign—the discussions about capitalism and social welfare, about the elite and the ordinary, about climate change, international politics, and immigration—are little heard. That is actually surprising, as the director, Jean-Paul Civeyrac (whose works sometimes focus on mystery and strange events), dealt with social complexities in My Friend Victoria (2015), about the intimate intermingling of class and race in Paris, inspired by a Doris Lessing story.

Jean-Paul Civeyrac has admitted he found the germ for A Paris Education in I Am Twenty (1962), a film on friendship by Marlen Khutsiev, a Russian director. Civeyrac has said that he did not want his black-and-white film to seem an obvious tribute to cinema’s origins, but the Civeyrac film’s inevitable blurring of time through talk and taste—contemporary colors do not declare themselves—makes that reference likely. In A Paris Education Etienne learns film history in class, where different aesthetic approaches are considered and student films screened. Etienne lives and works in an apartment he shares for a time with Valentina (Jenna Thiam), a charming, sensual, and humorous young woman artist, who does not think Paris is as creative as New York or Berlin. Art, commerce, and politics (and who is authentic or talented) are the stuff of obsessive arguments at the parties Etienne attends, and sex is almost a sign of approval. Yet when Etienne speaks to his hometown girlfriend Lucie, Etienne tries to reassure her of his devotion. Of course, he would have to be distracted: his small-town perspective is being augmented by knowledge of the great world. He is compelled to imagine other times and places—and to see his own time differently. Etienne hears a lecture on Italian film, and learns that the difficulties of the Italian people during and after the end of the twentieth-century’s second world war led to a liberation in the arts, with creativity in a panoply of film genres. He hears about a fellow student, the young Mathias (Corentin Fila), whose personality and philosophy—a reverence for originality in great art, an insistence on art above commerce— has admirers and antagonists. Etienne’s new friend Jean-Noel (Gonzague Van Bervesseles) defends Mathias’s idiosyncrasy. Mathias (Fila), who reveres Jean Vigo and John Ford, dislikes the entertaining lightness of another student’s film: Mathias sees in William’s film only the desire to please, not work that can help someone to live. Some students find William’s work inspiring, and Mathias a pretentious and irritating bore. Mathias rejects both whiny French films and vulgar American products. Mathias does think one student, Heloise (Charlotte Van Bervesseles), is doing good work.

The passion for cinema is one that a film lover can take for granted, but, of course, not everyone takes deep pleasure in film or examines it seriously; and among those who do take film seriously, different kinds of claims can be made. There are different kinds of expectations. What of beauty, pleasure, and invention does it offer? How does art represent the complexities—in culture, economics, and politics—of society? How does it give vision and voices to those seldom seen and heard in mainstream venues? The French New Wave influenced cinema around the world; but international cinema is now, and has been, introducing new themes and tones—about personality, place, and power. About community and history. Authorship and intertextuality have new colors. A Paris Education, which inclines me to think of Godard’s portrait of youth in Masculine Feminine (1966), has been compared to Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1973) and Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers (2005), both set in 1968 Paris—but it may be important, as well, to consider some of the films set in today’s Paris that present more of the cultural richness and the clash of cultures to be found there. Such a latter comparison can make some of the conversations that take place in A Paris Education seem less prescient, less profound.

The empire defined itself by beauty, knowledge, and power, by glory and justice. Those accomplishments redeemed its brutalities, supposedly. The people the empire conquered and claimed have come to the metropolis with their own claims—but do not find beauty or justice. Cultures are clashing, and new sensibilities born. In the path breaking 1995 film La Haine (Hate) by Mathieu Kassovitz, brutal police treatment of people of color in French suburban housing estates (banlieues) was explored—a France many did not recognize until then. Other films followed, beginning to fill in the portrait of a complicated, multicultural France: Code Unknown (2000), by Michael Haneke, centered on a harassed homeless beggar defended by an African man against bourgeois disapproval; The Secret of the Grain; or, Couscous (2007), by Abdellatif Kechiche, shows a North African (Tunisian) community in Sete, a Mediterranean port city, focusing on a man who wants to start a restaurant; A Prophet (2009), a Jacques Audiard prison drama featuring an isolated and illiterate young man convicted for attacking the police, approached by organized crime; Welcome (2009), set in Calais, about Bilal, an Iraqi Kurdish immigrant, and his determination to swim to England, directed by Philippe Lioret; The Girlhood (2014), about an abused girl’s joining a gang for identity, support, from director Céline Sciamma; and Samba (2014), by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, focused on a Senegalese immigrant, a hotel dishwasher, fighting detention and forced extradition. Papicha (Pretty Girl), a 2019 Mounia Meddour work dramatizes a young Algerian woman student’s desire to become a fashion designer in 1990s conservative yet volatile Algerian culture; and School Life (2019), a French Arab film by Fabien Marsaud and Mehdi Idir, taking place in Saint-Denis, a Paris suburb, features a new vice-principal trying to reach troubled students while contending with her own jailed boyfriend. In Ladj Ly’s film Les Miserables (2019), a new policeman observes a diverse community patrolled by corrupt cops, and sees the balance of interests and tensions—business, religion, youth—that exist in Les Bosquets (The Groves) in Montfermeil, where Victor Hugo set his own story of human suffering.

In A Paris Education, most of the conflicts are personal—and merely disturb personal comfort. Lucie (Diane Rouxel) visits Paris; and she and Etienne (Andranic Manet) walk around the city, with Etienne pointing of interest that intersect with film history. He shows her footage—apparently shot when he was home—of the film he has been constructing, editing. The potential pleasure of sex does not exorcise her melancholia: Lucie insists they stop making love, and says she feels abandoned—although she, too, has work that will keep her busy, an internship lasting three months, until March. Lucie is miffed when Etienne’s roommate Valentina, hearing music and without knocking, enters Etienne’s room while he and Lucie are in bed. (Bach and Mahler are two musical references for the students.) Lucie and Etienne have a disagreement about what Valentina’s casual entry means. Is he changing? Are his values? He had not been a drinker, but, later, during a late night talk with Valentina he accepts a drink with alcohol. (I recall my first months in New York, when I ordered soda and milk to drink and declined wine or beer—eventually meeting friends for talk of shared enthusiasms, and having wine with dinner, even if dinner was pizza, become a casual thing.) Yet, Etienne is trying to renew his faithfulness to Lucie: Valentina thinks his idealism, his serious tone, is more about his idea of himself than Lucie, a moral shield. Etienne and Valentina talk about honesty and discretion, about the ethics of cheating. Etienne, subsequently, will speak to Lucie again, via the internet; and Lucie senses of his distance, his boredom—but she, too, has a developing social life, and plans to attend a celebration with friends.

Etienne tries to finish a film project, which contains scenes of country life: the energies, and wisdom, of the provinces infuse Etienne’s film—and contribute to the excitement of Paris (all those ambitious young people—with their hope and talent—bring that to the metropolis). Etienne shows his unfinished film to Jean-Noel (Gonzague Van Bervesseles) and Mathias (Corentin Fila); and the observer can see the serenity and simplicity of country life in Etienne’s film. Jean-Noel, who is from Clermont, likes Etienne’s film for its lack of Parisian clichés, but Mathias, who is from Bordeaux, thinks some of it too literary—that Etienne should return to his sense of experience rather than of interpretation. Yet, the three, Etienne, Jean-Noel, and Mathias, like literature and speak of Flaubert’s letters. They are a generation looking back in order to look forward. The three young men play pool—and Jean-Noel admits brief, hopeless love liaisons (Mathias tells him Jean-Noel he should be more discerning—and Jean-Noel is not the only one: Jean-Noel is infatuated with Etienne, and several women go to bed with Etienne with an ease that seems fantastic). Etienne, becoming ill, feels doubt about his own work—and destroys his film, a year’s work; and he and his roommate Valentina kiss and have sex. Mathias brings the ill Etienne a book of Flaubert’s letters, mentioning a sister who brought him books when Mathias was sick. Lucie, by phone, breaks up with Etienne; and Etienne’s parents visit, saying that Lucie was taking hard the end of the relationship. The best moments in Paris Education are often when the young are most critical of each other—as some of the best moments of Godard’s Masculine Feminine, about the relation of Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and Madeleine (Chantal Goya), were moments of criticality that suggested the limits of so much self-absorption.

Etienne, after Valentina leaves, gets a new woman roommate, Annabelle from Bordeaux, a political activist whose passions impress Etienne. “Our fathers failed. They gave in to everything,” Annabelle (Sophie Verbeeck) says, but they, the young, must save the planet and themselves. She sits in on a screening of a Russian film Ilyich’s Gate by Marlen Khutsiev with Etienne, Jean-Noel, and Mathias; and Annabelle says they can both make films and take action in real life. She and her associates plan a political action, something involving protest camps, and Etienne, who attends a political meeting with her (and takes her to a film, The Color of Pomegranates by Sergei Parajanov), thinks Annabelle brave, selfless, but Annabelle says she is doing what she wants to do. Etienne gets a job evaluating scripts and stories for television projects (where he meets a friendly colleague, Barbara, from Reins, played by Valentine Catzeflis). Meanwhile, Mathias disappears (someone says Mathias was seen wandering the streets, disoriented: which does not sound like the beautiful, confident young man we have seen—although his ideals may be hard to reconcile with reality). Etienne worries about Mathias, but soon learns that Mathias and Annabelle had become involved in a volatile relationship. Annabelle says that being in a relationship makes you want to shoot yourself; and Mathias admires a suicidal poet. When Etienne visits Lucie, who works for a periodical publisher doing some research and translations, Etienne says he misses her but Lucie says he has loved cinema and himself more than her, and confused her with his mother, and that she has met a new man. (That seems a rather complicated gut punch, the kind of revelation that comes of wounded rumination and cruel honesty.)

Mathias insists the cinema can help you see, feel oriented—live. One of Etienne’s professors, Paul Rossi (Nicolas Bouchard), befriends Etienne, thinking him smart, talented, and nice, inviting Etienne to stop by the professor’s apartment for film books, music, and food, but Etienne is insulted by the professor’s resentful and patronizing son—who suggests the professor’s pity for the provincial. Etienne works with Jean-Noel on a new film project (The Cheater), but is distracted by thoughts of Mathias’s hard judgment—which angers Jean-Noel, who abandons the project; but Etienne finds a collaborator in Heloise and other students. Etienne is surprised to get an encouraging text from Mathias; that invigorates. A chance encounter with a former colleague, Barbara, leads to a sudden but significant affair. Etienne’s life in Paris has truly begun; and the film ends.

I find it hard to consider Etienne’s life, and the representation of youth’s potential that he presents without looking back at Jean-Luc Godard and around at the other films that explore contemporary France and elicit interest but do no create the same sense of prestige. Jean-Luc Godard created art out of his interrogations: the work of Jean-Luc Godard is celebratory and critical, dramatic and dialogical. Yet, Godard’s bright, well-dressed Paul in Masculine Feminine (or using the French spelling Masculin Feminin) is a bit of a brat, something I did not perceive when I first saw the film. Godard’s film, full of ideas and incident, is about the children of Marx and Coca-Cola in the age of James Bond and Vietnam. Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is handsome and intelligent but demanding, intrusive, and loud, sometimes yelling to emphasize a point like a child. In Godard’s still beautiful and bristling film, so full of varied energy, one notices the confident assumptions of the young men, who ogle and harass women as foreplay. There is talk, flirtation, money, sex, and violence between men and women. The women tend to be thoughtful, dignified, and honest (they are wary, knowing what they do not want)—and are more impressive. The film begins in a Paris restaurant with Paul reading a passage that acknowledges the difficulties of both solitude and fellowship, and he meets and talks with a young woman, Madeleine (Chantal Goya), at a nearby table about a magazine job he might get through a mutual friend (Paul will do some kind of public survey). Paul and his friend Robert are interested in politics, signing petitions and putting up posters, and engaging in graffiti—and they easily switch to evaluating women’s breasts. Yet, there is an acknowledgement that there is no “average Frenchwoman,” that such a designation is simplification.

Madeleine, who is pretty, sweet, and intuitive, is doing photo editing at a magazine, and recording music for an important company. When Paul talks with Madeleine again, they speak of honesty. He says he’s attracted to her; and she asks if he expects sex on a first date—and he first evades her question, but, later, says yes. When women—when Madeleine and her friends Catherine and Elizabeth—discuss sexuality, their concerns have more to do with human contact and sensuality—with eyes, with skin. Some of the questions the women ask the men they meet seem to be intended to discern to what extent men understand that women have their differences, and can (should) be treated with respect or tenderness. The conversations of all the young people take place among different kinds of encounters, some of them violent, some commercial, some pornographic—thus, attempts at honesty seem particularly important. Paul asks Madeleine, impulsively, to marry him, and she puts him off, which makes him particularly bratty (she leaves him to pay the bar tab). Yet, when Paul loses his rented room—his landlady gives the space to her nephew—Paul is in the midst of considering both breaking with Madeleine, and moving in with her and her women friends. The question of birth control comes up several times: it has increased female freedom, but not all of them use it. Meanwhile, Madeleine’s recorded song is doing well on the record charts—Paul likes orchestral music (Bach and Mahler are cited). One of Madeleine’s friends says, “We’re not your type of girl,” which maddens Paul—but he has attempted to force his formal seriousness, his regard for culture and politics, on them. Masculine Feminine ends with Paul not having made the impact, personal, professional, or political, he hoped to have (how many of youth’s significant ambitions are gratified?)—but Madeleine is left with the genuine choices, the ones that affect daily life.

(Submitted October 2020)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 27, Issue 8-9-10 / October 2023 Film Reviews   cinephilia   french cinema   new wave