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Battle Royale: Close-Up on Claire Simon’s “The Graduation”

A remarkable documentary account of the protracted admissions process at France’s most prestigious film school, La Fémis.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Claire Simon's The Graduation (1936) is playing September 11 - October 11, 2017 in the United Kingdom and most countries around the world as part of We Don't Need No Education: A Back-to-School Series.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
— Ezra Pound, “In a Station of the Metro”
 “I hope it’s not just the quantity that counts. I said what I have to say.”
— Applicant exiting exam hall, The Graduation
Film school: who needs it? In The Graduation (2016), Claire Simon’s account of the protracted admissions process at France’s most prestigious film school, La Fémis, the question is implicit—and the myriad answers are potentially troubling. Writing about the film in the New Yorker earlier this year, Richard Brody remarked: “Seeing, in Simon’s documentary, the directing candidates forced to analyze a scene, submit a dossier, step on a set and direct a dictated scene, is like watching the training of hired hands rather than original artists—people better suited to writing grant applications than scripts, better suited to following orders than creating new worlds, to playing the urbane part of a director in meetings and interviews than actually being one.”
Brody gets personal. “This is a pained observation about a country whose films have been the very source and spark of my own movie-love—not least because it’s where the modern idea of the cinema itself arose.” And, in the very first images of her film—in which a handful of Fémis hopefuls enter the Paris school through its gates on Rue Francoeur (Pathé’s old studios)—Simon pays a kind of inverse homage to one of the early treasures of French cinema: Workers Leaving the Factory. As The Graduation unfolds over a two-hour runtime, the loaded ironies of this tribute sink in. Is Simon, who taught nonfiction practice at Fémis for years prior to gaining behind-the-scenes access for this project, lamenting France’s recent dearth in cinematic innovation? Is she, more specifically, connecting such a shortage of new talent to structural deficiencies in its educational program—a setup more akin to the workshop filmed by the Lumières in 1895 than the kind of open-minded and forward-thinking breeding ground that a film school such as this ought to be?
It’s difficult to say. Adopting an observational mode, Simon is able to stitch together a coherent narrative of the three-part submissions process (applicants undergo a written test, a practical exercise, an oral exam) while sustaining an ambiguity as to what she makes of it all. While we never see any of the school’s actual students at work (alumni include François Ozon and Arnaud Desplechin; Raoul Peck is its current president), one obvious symptom of its possibly outmoded methods of recruitment is the predominantly white staff, whose own class-based prejudices are gradually revealed. (Simon, who began her filmmaking career in Algeria, claims that she had to fight hard to have Franco-Senegalese director Alain Gomis accepted into the school.)
A large part of understanding Simon’s apparent ambivalence has to do with the film’s durational and structural qualities. On the one hand, the director makes us spend time here not so much in the presence of the students as the judging process itself; the very length of the film, and of many of the sequences in it, makes us aware of the difficulties in evaluating a candidacy when contact with the applicant is, even over the course of several months, limited to relatively brief encounters in an eternally formal setting (one of the interviewees, sipping endless amounts of water, admits to nerves during his oral examination). On the other hand, employing repetition—a student enters a room and speaks before a panel of judges, who then privately exchange opinions on her/his credentials before another student enters, and so on—Simon captures the sheer complexities of narrowing a competitive field. (The English translation of the film’s title is a bizarre misnomer; the original, Le concours, means “competition”—a far better summary of the film’s themes.)
Simon’s vérité approach has prompted inevitable comparisons to Frederick Wiseman, but the effects of her method are subtly different. While Wiseman, in recent greats such as At Berkeley (2012) and National Gallery (2014), fixates upon boardroom meetings attended by experts whose credentials become apparent through the very activity of dialogue, Simon’s footage very early on demonstrates the precarious, ad hoc mechanisms by which a system like this works—and how an often flimsy rationale is articulated for the acceptance or rejection of a young hopeful. Whereas Wiseman’s subjects work within an established system that nevertheless allows for fascinating disagreements, Simon’s subjects differ in opinion so dramatically that one can’t help but question the legitimacy of the entire grading scheme.
One particularly heated discussion between those judging the applications (Fémis claims to have no lessons and no teachers in the traditional sense) stems from the question of how good a director should be at communication. One juror, citing Nicolas Winding Refn as an example of a cinematic genius who can’t communicate so well in person, accuses her colleagues of bias, of accepting applicants on the basis of their likability.
The key tension here is that between quantity and quality. It isn’t just the ways by which personal (and professional) qualities in one person are quantified by another; it’s also the ways in which a system functions so that quantity, over time, can produce its own quality. In an early scene, Simon gives us a wide shot of an examination hall: heads down, pens scribbling, seats shuffling, papers rustling, and anonymous coughs creating a kind of abstract non-silence prior to the more qualitative interactions of subsequent rounds. In one of these, a young applicant (female, black) is asked if she wants to go into politics.
“No,” she says, “it’s too corrupt.”

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