Every year, more than 1,000 wide-eyed wannabes stream through the gates of France’s most exclusive film school, desperate to earn a coveted spot at the famed La Fémis (aka Fondation Européenne pour les Métiers de l’Image et du Son). The odds are not in their favor: Only 60 students are accepted to each class, and those who matriculate are scattered across a variety of disciplines that range from directing and screenwriting to movie theater management (remember, this is France).
Rejected candidates are allowed to submit two more times, but the strict age limit — 27 — is one of many respects in which the four-month process is more reminiscent of “American Idol” than it is American academia. The chosen few, on the other hand, are hardly guaranteed success, but they’re invited into a remarkable band of insiders that counts the likes of Claire Denis, Alain Resnais, Céline Sciamma, and Andrzej Żuławski amongst its ranks.
Would those alumni have reached auteur status without their experience at La Fémis? It’s hard to say, and “The Competition” doesn’t offer many hints. A narrow but riveting observational documentary that relies on cheap suspense and bone-deep schadenfreude to conceal the absence of a critical gaze, the film limits its focus to the admissions process. Once the head of the filmmaking department at La Fémis, director Claire Simon (“Gare du Nord”) already knows that part too well.
On the contrary, Simon is more interested in how the students are chosen, a secretive culling that’s delegated to a contentious group of cinema professionals from all over France (imagine jury duty, but with more yelling about Robert Bresson). Some of the jurors are screenwriters, some are production designers, some are critics and programmers — all are white. But Simon is too compelled by morbid curiosity to dig into the details; either too entranced by the aura of La Fémis or too indebted to its allure to meaningfully question its value.
Which isn’t to say that her Wiseman-esque, fly-on-the-wall portrait is short on things to consider, only that it’s hard to make sense of an entire institution when you’re solely focused on the front door. While always engaging, “The Competition” sometimes feels as though it only bumps into its big subjects (e.g. cultural gatekeeping and the general vitality of French cinema) by accident, and then backs away from them as fast as it can.
Some of that can be blamed on the admissions process itself, which is so mortifying and intense on its surface that it’s tempting to not look any deeper. Every part of the ordeal is certain to induce some low-grade PTSD from anyone who’s ever gone to film school — or auditioned for anything at all, really. The whole thing is mildly sadistic in some way or another. Phase one is a written exam, during which 1,200 kids are packed into a dark auditorium and given three hours to pen a longhand response to a random film clip (in this case a clip from Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s miniseries, “Penance,” which feels like a Cahiers du Cinéma-inspired choice). “It’s important not to take it too seriously,” one of the administrators tells the horde of young hopefuls. Sure, Jan.
The jurors, of course, take the essays very seriously. They argue over potential filmmakers as they might over actual films, and while it’s engaging enough to see these people take destiny into their hands, it’s tempting to wish that we could read some of the more controversial material. The few candidates who survive this initial stage are invited back for the second round, during which they’re sat in front of a panel and forced to shape a short narrative based on an oblique prompt; this part is both more provocative and more impenetrable than the one before it.
Refusing to let the students become the story, Simone cuts up their presentations so that it’s possible to get the gist, but difficult to pick favorites (or even follow individual narratives). Doing so bends our attention towards the bigger questions that the La Fémis admissions panel absolves the actual faculty from ever having to think about: What do we look for in cinema? Is a certain degree of bias inevitable? Doesn’t such a performance-driven admissions process — which favors extroverts, and inevitably compels all candidates to say whatever they think the jurors want to hear — risk turning the country’s film industry into a non-inclusive echo chamber that only reinforces outmoded idea of what film can be? And to follow that idea to its logical conclusion: Is the basic premise of film schools fundamentally anathema to the creation of art? If great films are seldom made by committee, perhaps it stands to reason that great filmmakers are seldom made the same way.
Some conclusions are easier to draw than others, but the lack of context gives the impression that Simone never came to any of her own — that her observational remove was a convenient way of nullifying her own complicity in a system that’s more interested in sustaining itself than in accurately reflecting the character and vision of the people who are paying for it. The lens of her film isn’t wide enough to interrogate the institution at its center, as the director is both too close to — and too far from — La Fémis to see it clearly.
What “The Competition” considers a deliciously exciting rite of passage, viewers might interpret as a kind of cultural rot. The truth likely falls somewhere in between, as Simone’s documentary is too gripping to be dismissed, and too queasy to be accepted. By the time it reaches the breathless final phase of the audition process (an actual film shoot on the La Fémis soundstage), the only thing that’s clear is that the French ethic of égalité is easier to preserve in theory than it is in practice.
Metrograph Pictures will release “The Competition” at The Metrograph on February 22.