From the Sep.-Oct. 2000 issue of Film Comment. A postscript to last week’s reprint of a Tavernier piece.
At the age at which directors are supposed to have settled into stateliness and comfortable shoes, Bertrand Tavernier keeps kicking against propriety. Though capable of working in a classical mode, Tavernier has spent much of the Nineties exploring a rough, jagged style; we might expect this of his young new-new-wave compatriots, but it’s especially refreshing coming from an eminence grise of French movies.
L.627 and Capitaine Conan (both of which I wrote about in FC Nov.-Dec. ’98) are sliced through with disorienting incidents, refusing to pursue a linear narrative. L.627 (1992) drops us into the chaotic and grungy world of police work, and Conan (1996) is the horrific confusion of World War I at trench level. L’Appat (Fresh Bait, 1995) is more conventionally structured, but open-endedly explores the moral void of young Parisians robbing and murdering for absurd reasons. For his latest film, It All Starts Today (Ça commence aujourd’hui), Tavernier’s subject is the maddening state of the modern school system. The style is the same as the war movie and the policier, but it seems more daring here, since there isn’t an obvious genre reason for the approach—the violence expressed in the ragged mise-en-scene is more psychological than physical.
In synopsis, It All Starts Today sounds like a Ken Loach social-work movie. Tavernier’s leading man from Capitaine Conan, Philippe Torreton, stars here as a tough, empathetic grade-school teacher in a depressed town in northern France. (One of the town’s boosters wants to spin its image by declaring, “No more Germinal!”, but the dark cloud of failed industry hangs over the place.) The coal-haired Torreton, a seamless actor, brings some of the ferocity he had as Conan to the teacher’s struggles with the endless cycle of budget cuts, troubled children, irresponsible parents, and smothering bureaucracy. The echo of war is fitting, since It All Starts Today insists that only the toughest soldiers will survive the battles to make a livable world for kids.
Tavernier’s Nineties output has included a couple of documentaries, and those experiences may also have affected the feel of It All Starts Today. In other words, think of the film as having the shape of a war documentary: a handheld Steadicam used throughout, a loose approach to the ABCs of storytelling, the favoring of realism over aesthetics. The Torreton character, Daniel Lefebvre, begins the film by rising early in his country house and musing in a voice-over: “A story can unfold like a dream. You don’t decide when to fall asleep, when to awaken….You want to be caring, help your character, take him by the hand….” These unexpected bits of narration seem to address the film’s seemingly random movements, its life-and-nothing-but flow, as though the movie were out of the control of its director. (Not always: The graceful pan that takes us from a lesson in class to a schoolroom window, beyond which the funeral procession for a dead child passes, is a heartbreaking visual stroke worthy of Griffith or Ford.)
At work, Lefebvre spends at least as much time trying to improve (sometimes save) the lives of his kids as he does teaching them how to read and write. He blames himself for the tragic consequences that befall an alcoholic mother whose daughter is enrolled in his class, a subplot that takes most of the film to unfold. He also has trouble in his own home, when his girlfriend’s son is discovered to have been among the vandals who trashed the schoolhouse one night. (The girlfriend makes sculptures out of awkward pieces of metal, her own way of wrenching beauty out of the industrial past.) It All Starts Today might be read as The 400 Blows from the perspective of a sympathetic teacher.
The film’s dialogue is rife with statistics and complaints about the school system—occasionally a scene will turn into a shouting match, or simply depict teachers sitting around in a circle comparing woes. It’s as though Tavernier is admitting he has too much important information he wants to get out there, and is willing to vent his anger and frustration into undigested dialogue. Some of It All Starts Today plays like one of Godard’s Sixties movies, with a character staring into the camera and delivering unto us some portion of the revolutionary credo. In one scene, also an echo of Godard, an elegant middle-aged teacher speaks with an unseen interlocutor, and gives what appears to be a documentary interview about the decline in schools over the last twenty years. (The title itself, not referred to in the movie, is a stand-alone call to arms.)
It is, then, a somewhat unstable film. An American counterpart might be John Sayles’ City of Hope, which also shook an impassioned fist at crumbling civic infrastructure, though the visual and rhythmic busy-ness of It All Starts Today feels more organic—not merely a depiction of the gutters but right down there in them. It must be said that this brand of social-action picture runs the risk of undramatized issue-mongering, and Tavernier does not avoid the pitfalls: there are scenes that sit there, hectoring, while we may be forgiven for breathing, “Yes, Bertrand, we got it already,” under our breath. Thanks to the unmitigated pleasure of schoolkids putting on a show, and the un-handsome dynamism of Torreton, these lapses fade away by the time the film reaches its lovely conclusion.
The fact of the director taking this disorienting tack as he moves into his seventh decade is interesting in itself. He may be wary of the model of Ladmiral, the aged painter in Tavernier’s A Sunday in the Country, who never achieved the depth and breadth of his contemporaries, the Impressionists, because of his inability or unwillingness to change his safe style. Say what you want about Tavernier’s recent work, but he has not been playing it safe.