A Paris Education: Review

A Paris Education: Review

By Fergus Henderson. Sometimes there are certain films that are just indefinably right for certain points in a person’s life. For a certain type of film nerd at the beginning of their journey in film, Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s A Paris Education represents the kind of French film you want to live inside. This imaginary film ingénue might find an uneasy proxy in the film’s lead character Etienne (Andranic Manet), a mopey film student struggling with both his work and his love-life. 

The pleasures of a film like A Paris Education lie in its unapologetic self-indulgence. In its ponderous pace, its simple black and white photography, its knowing tone. Everyone is smoking and having long, aggressively French conversations about sex and protest and art and friendship. People speak with the total idealism of inexperience. There is a charismatic, sententious mentor named Mathias (Corentin Fila) that proves dangerously -and seductively – influential. Someone, arguing in favour of cheating, explains that “transparency is a fascist illusion.” What’s not to love?

Civeyrac, decades into his career, is telling this story looking backwards. He must surely have been that film nerd, able now to recall with exacting clarity both the romance and the foolishness of such a time in his life. To any similar film obsessive, years into their tenure, A Paris Education could prove queasy viewing. There is regret and shame at the arrogance and selfishness on display. Etienne must be put through the ringer in order to see clearly.

A Paris Education, like its French forebearers The Dreamers and Regular Lovers, explores the conflict between of art and real life – and especially action and passivity. Civeyrac uses ennui-stricken Etienne as a person for whom life happens to. People educate him, enliven him, dress him down and build him up. All the while, he remains blank.

He does not act, only reacts, whether to the arrogant spiel of enigmatic Mathias, or to the castigations of the (bewilderingly frequent) women he becomes involved with. He is too self-involved to realise that his life is happening and that he is impacting it. He is a lead character in the didactic, Antonioni sense, a glibly ineffectual creation.

Luckily for us, and for Etienne, the stakes are smaller than the political future of France represented in either of the above films. A Paris Education is simply about a film student learning to take some small measure of responsibility for himself. Watching him letting everyone down and cheating on his patient girlfriend Lucie (Diane Rouxel) in order to get there, however, does prove frustrating. 

Here is the film’s issue: the camera may be canny enough to focus on people’s reactions to Etienne’s actions (the critical eye) but it still never strays far enough from him for us to truly explore any of the other characters. We only ever see just a tiny bit more than the lead, which leaves the main plot threads essentially unexplored. Civeyrac, having allowed himself a generous run-time, is surely doing this intentionally. How little Etienne knows of the people in his life, the film mourns. How much life happens beyond his limited reach.

Brooding wannabe-iconoclast Mathias sneaks around the film’s narrative like a spectre, as does activist/roommate Annabelle (Sophie Verbeeck, resisting her own narrative’s side-lining), teasing the narrative along. If Civeyrac had extended the film to three hours (a wish no film goer makes lightly) and allowed us more meaningful glimpses into his side characters’ lives, A Paris Education might be a much stronger film.

Still, despite its self-imposed limitations (and the strong whiff of sexism throughout), it does somehow achieve a modest greatness. The cast gamely deliver their delightfully po-faced dialogue with conviction, and for two hours and change I was taken back to that ever-receding moment in time when all that mattered was cinema. A sweet, sad feeling, worth experiencing. 

Released February 14th.

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