They Used to Stare at Fires: Claire Simon’s “The Competition”
It’s simpler to say that a film is a summation of thousands of decisions made by thousands of people than to try and accurately summarize the whole process. To think something as unruly and enormous as a movie could start with one person in a room by themselves is almost inconceivable. The Competition, which threatens to be the American breakthrough of prolific French director Claire Simon, takes you to that room to show where someone gets permission to be that one person. The place is the Fondation Européenne pour les Métiers de l’Image et du Son, La Fémis for short, and it’s the most well-regarded film school in France, the birthplace of the medium. The room in which an idea becomes a film, it turns out, is one of the most heavily guarded in the nation; the impression one leaves with is that it’d be easier to get an audience with the French president than get into this school.
Simon’s interest is not in the inner workings of the school per se, but rather just the rigorous admissions exam, a multi-step process that includes a written assignment, presentation of an idea for your first film to a committee, and a spoken explanation of your history with the medium to industry professionals like Emmanuel Chaumet, Olivier Ducastel, and Sophie Fillières. The film spends most of its time observing the meetings between teachers and perspective students, and then among the elders as they talk about the kids who’ve just left the room. It’s an insight into the prejudices still hiding in bourgeois French society (some offhand xenophobia may come as a shock when it appears during the third act deliberations, but it’s an important reminder that film culture often convinces itself it’s more progressive than it is) and to the way in which the French academic system takes stories more seriously than their own behavior. The deliberations about students’ film ideas concerning religiously motivated murders or a laboriously written metaphorical horse are treated with more sensitivity than anything else in the film. On the one hand, it’s good to know that the ambitions of the young are taken seriously (France has never had a problem legitimizing genre films the way America does, even if they aren’t famous for producing any). On the other hand, there’s a patina of ridiculousness hearing the old guard discussing undercooked revenge homicide ideas with people too young to rent a car. This gentle reminder of the essential strangeness of spending a life in the cinema is a counterpoint to the seriousness of the testing.
For the duration of the film, Simon’s mise-en-scène is a cross between Frederick Wiseman and Raymond Depardon. Her camera ingratiates itself into a room of collaborators and confidants, where it enables the viewer to hear an unguarded candor emerge from battle-hardened filmmakers sizing up the new generation. She relies on edits to take her from student to instructor, always clear in her division of subjects. Many things separate the young and the old, including experience in front of a camera, and Simon makes sure we see who’s comfortable and who isn’t. In one scene, the jurors interview a student who clams up when they ask him when he realized he wanted to be a screenwriter. Simon rarely cuts to the young man’s face as he stammers, showing us what it is he shrinks from more acutely than showing his fear outright. The intangible and the tangible, the kids’ hopes and emotions have to do battle with the very real people sitting in front of them.
That’s the conflict The Competition dramatizes, albeit quietly: how do you concretely prove you can make something abstract? The young people are quizzed on their ability to shoot well, to think cinematically, to not have ideas like everyone else’s. At one point, a tired instructor worries that if these kids don’t think hard enough about their work, they’ll end up with “movies that look like movies.” Fear of a self-regenerative cinematic future (a movie looks like X and makes money, so all other movies look like X going forward) is written across the exhausted faces and on the busy chain-smoking hands of the elders. What cinematic future are they aiming to help create? What can the instructors learn from a kid, sitting across a desk from them, nervously trying to describe the film they see in their head? These questions — emerging from a patient documentary film with unfettered access to the breeding ground of creativity — are a good start to wondering about what a cinematic future might look like. Even more encouraging: this is the debut release from newly minted Metrograph Pictures, the distribution wing of the New York movie theater known for its progressively niche programming and famous patrons, the cinephile’s cinematheque, and as such it’s an impressive gauntlet thrown. This, after all, is a fearlessly quiet work about the possibilities of cinema from a female filmmaker whose US approval is long overdue. If they continue picking films this curious about process, about the nuts and bolts of creation, and the little prejudices of gatekeepers, there’s is sure to be a long and prosperous run.
Claire Simon’s The Competition opens at the Metrograph on February 22.