Borrowing from the institutional observation of Frederick Wiseman, Claire Simon’s Le concours takes a look at one of the world’s most prestigious film schools and its intensive application process. La Fémis focuses on workshops and skills learned by professionals in cinema rather than academics. The school normally accepts just 60 students a year over a variety of different fields, ranging from theater management and set design to scriptwriting and directing. Simon’s film not only examines the incredible pressures that prospective students face, but the questions of democracy, philosophy and art that the professional panel of judges wrestle with in deciding the school’s future.
Mixing theory and the practical, prospective students are faced with a series of tests and interviews to determine their eligibility. The first stage is a real-time response to a film, which students are encouraged to respond to honestly but not too technically. As much as this school will be focused on the practicality of film production, they are searching as much for “personalities” as they are hard workers. This test makes up one-third of an entry package, which also includes a portfolio and a project proposal (at least for students applying in direction). Students are assigned a number and each application package will be judged by three different groups, with no one student having each stage of their application judged by a single group. Over the course of this first, tentative step, various judges argue the merits of each project. Emotions run high as one jury’s favorite project proposal ends up being rejected due to a poor portfolio score and vice versa.
After this first stage, it seems that more than half of applicants are rejected, though the process will only become harder. Direction students will be faced with a short script, a set and two actors: they have a limited time to direct a scene with the provided materials under the supervision of a jury. In another test, students are given lines of dialogue (including phrases like “I am a horse”) and have 45 minutes to create a narrative to present before a panel of three judges. Under that kind of pressure, it should be unsurprising that many students fall apart. Some projects are subpar, and some go completely blank when asked follow-up questions. Students are not only expected to be clever and creative, but flexible, ambitious and charming.
While many of the interviews probe and examine questions of practical skills and drive, the overreaching doubt in objectivity and bias are the most interesting. In the pursuit of what seems to be an auteur-driven cinema, what it means to be a great filmmaker hangs at the edges. A jury group squabbles over a prospective student, with one member believing he lacks talent entirely, while the other two jury members argue otherwise, maintaining that he is “crazy” but talented. The dissenting party argues that he lacks talent and personality, and the others worry that turning him away would be akin to possibly turning away a Nicholas Winding Refn (“who you can tell has obvious social issues”). Another debate questions the merits of school for a student from a less privileged background who works as a bartender at night and has a “radical” personality. One jury member argues that he’s shown enough drive to make it on his own without their acceptance, that she’d rather have the spot go to someone who can use their help. By that logic, another judge says, shouldn’t the student who has already been to the best schools by virtue of his birth be disqualified? How is the waiter somehow more privileged than the kid who had everything handed to him?
The question of the artistic temperament seems to be the fundamental one at play in the selection process for La Fémis. As much as the juries try to be objective, they often seem to rely on an artificial concept of genius. Yet, in their pursuit for a democratic and fair system, they are likely unmatched when compared to other schools. As problematic and difficult as the selection process can be, it aspires towards treating the value of artistic endeavors as something that cannot be measured on paper and requires critical and personal examination. What makes someone a great artist before they’ve made any great works of art? That becomes the central question and object of scrutiny at the heart of Le concours, making it one of the most compelling examinations of auteur driven cinema.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.