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'The Competition': An academic film about cinematic academe in France

I'm not sure you could find a less engaging and more generic film title than "The Competition."

Nevertheless, there was a pretty good English-language film in 1980 called "The Competition." It starred Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving (who briefly became Mrs. Steven Spielberg) as competing pianists in a high-dome international competition for classical pianists. Lee Remick plays the uber-generation. The milieu was fresh, the actors (at the time) irresistible.

There is a Thora Birch rom-com coming called "The Competition," too. But "The Competition" ("Le Concours") opening Friday at the North Park Theatre is a French documentary about admission and post-admission to the French film school La Femis. I'm guessing that it would hard for most people to imagine a film sounding less interesting than that.

Let's just say that the film is about as interesting as it sounds. To be frank, it is one of the drearier and more off-putting movies I've seen in quite a while.

There was a point about 15 minutes in where I had some hopes for it. We're watching as candidates for admission to La Femis outline possible projects for films they would be interesting in making. A fresh-faced young man envisions a film about a religious family who kill people.

He is, in a pseudo-civilized, jargonish way, told that his idea has a kind of adolescent implausibility. At which point, the kid tells his professor/interlocutor that there was such a real family that was discovered near where his family vacationed the previous summer. In your mind, you might say "snap! Score one for the kid." Not in this film. The professor goes on with all of his previous smugness and we, in the audience, begin to suspect that no one could possibly learn anything even remotely interesting at this film school, where faculty smugness (expressed with surprisingly little wit) seems to abound.

You might also suspect – as I did – that if Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard had encountered this joint as young men, they would have tried to incinerate the place to the ground. (Godard in later years briefly had a relationship with the school but it didn't turn out at all well.) There was a chance for some secret satire in that scene – leading to all manner of developing secret satire. But forget about it. The film's director, Claire Simon, previously taught at La Femis and quit to make the film.

What we have is an academic film that faithfully records the smug and self-satisfied operation of a French film academy and those who wish to be graduating students. If you look at lists of graduates from La Femis you find a few impressive ones – Jean Jacques Annaud, for instance – but many more whose names are little known on our side of the pond.

That might be due more to faulty distribution of French films on this continent than any intrinsic cinematic malady. Then again, it may be due to the lack of anything interesting in the work of the school's graduates.

If "The Competition" is any indication, I'm betting on the latter.


1.5 stars (out of four)

Claire Simon's documentary about the students and faculty in France's La Femis film school starring Alain Bengala, Xanae Bove, Emmanuel Chaumet. 121 minutes. No rating but PG equivalent. In French with subtitles. Opening Friday in the North Park Theatre.

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