Postby CAP » Thu Apr 17, 2014 7:18 am

The kind of movie I probably wouldn’t see unless for the sake of others, but then I end up quite enjoying. This is a 2008 French production written and directed by Sylvie Verheyde, largely autobiographical and set in 1977, about an eleven year-old starting secondary school in Paris and floundering academically and socially. Let’s face it, it doesn’t sound all that promising, does it? If you had a choice between a tale of infinite CIA intrigue with lots of explosions and a little French schoolgirl who can’t get into her homework, which would you choose? Yeah right. Anyway it’s available on DVD and Blueray – I don’t recall a cinema release at all - and you can probably download it for free, if you’re so inclined. As I say, I was only watching for the sake of world peace but I somehow got into it after a while - luckily. It’s not great, but it did remind me what it’s like to be an eleven or twelve year old, starting high school or lycée. How small you are! How complicated everything is after primary school! All that extra travelling and homework! All those classrooms! All those strangers! All those subjects! All those teachers! How hard it all is, if you’re not bright, talented or popular from the start.

It took me a while to suss that it was actually set in the 70s – maybe I missed a caption or something as I discreetly attended to a little sparkling refreshment… Teachers’ and little girls’ fashions are not the sort of thing I would instantly pick up on anyway. It was a scene with football on TV that finally blurted it out. Those haircuts! Those kits! The story follows Stella (Léora Barbara) pretty much through her first year. There is no real plot here, apart from the goal of finally passing her exams and making it into eighth grade or equivalent. Some online criticism claims the movie is too meandering or episodic in this regard but it didn’t bother me. Hey, school life dude. After a while it all just washed over me, a bit like a few unavoidable spillages...

Stella has an interesting home life. Her parents run a lowlife bar and flophouse and a more discerning critic would doubtless identify the district or arrondissement. I could not. She takes the Metro to school and a far classier locale. Is she there on some sort privilege? I think she just gets lucky with the school distribution. Again, maybe I wasn’t properly paying attention. But her background clearly weighs upon her. She is acutely aware she is from the wrong side of the tracks but at the same time it makes her worldlier, more mature and initially she looks down on her more bourgeois and cloistered classmates. Go girl! But it also makes it hard for her to get with the programme and she keeps flunking everything. Maybe that’s the bit I started to identify with. It’s not that she’s stupid but it’s hard for her to motivate herself when she’s not really connecting with her classes.

She’s too busy thinking about all the colourful down-and-outs she gets to hang with at her parents’ bar. She quietly witnesses it all down there -the drunkenness and debauchery, ecstatic celebrations and furious recriminations, flirtations, betrayals, taunts and fights, tears and laughter. And that’s just her parents. She blithely rides the rollercoaster right along with death through drink, drugs, affliction and despair for outcasts and refugees. Some trip. As she says, it keeps the turnover in shabby little rented rooms fairly brisk. But it does make it hard to concentrate on academic matters. Those first few report cards draw heat from her mother. The familiar ultimatum runs something like “Look, if you want to drop out and end up a bar maid like me, go ahead, but you’ve got an opportunity I never had, young lady, to make more of yourself. But that is up to you.” You know the kind of thing, not putting any pressure on you or anything, but…. So Stella tries to get with it a bit more, but it’s not as easy as she thought. She and her mother go shopping for new clothes, to try and fit in with her classmates standards (it’s a single sex school without uniforms so the self-imposed dress code is a killer). She just comes off looking like she was dressed by a crocheting tragic. I suppose you have to really know the fashions of the time to read this point accurately. Unfortunately all I can come up with is Annie Hall. It’s me, it’s me… Stella wisely concedes she will never be chic but now she can’t even feel aloof.

The turning point however is when she somehow befriends Gladys, pretty much the class dux and from a comfortable family of Argentine Jewish émigrés. She is a slightly plump, kindly girl who travels even further to school. In quite other ways, she too is an outsider. Eventually Stella gets invited home by Gladys and it’s all rather grand, in an extended Argentine émigré family kind of way. Then there is the reciprocal visit to the lower depths for Gladys who is naturally a model of tact. It’s all quite sweet as Stella’s mother Roselyne (Karole Rocher) a rough diamond I think we can say, pours them soft drinks at the bar and ushers them into a secluded booth. But it works. Stella is still slighted by the other girls for being déclassé but she now has a powerful ally. Gladys’ literary tastes (not to say pretensions) start to rub off on Stella. She gets into reading stuff like Zola and Balzac in the playground and street, no less. Sooner or later this is reflected in her assignments. She starts passing. Come summer Stella is parcelled off to her paternal grandmother, quietly a bit of a rebel herself, somewhere “up north” is all the commentary indicates, which has a vaguely Jack London-ish ring to it, but she means somewhere out on the bleak plains of Northern France. I’m guessing around St. Quentin or maybe Cambrai, but just an anonymous little village. It’s not exactly a summer resort. But Stella likes her grandmother and has one regular friend there, Genevieve (Laëtitia Guerard). There’s a wonderful introductory shot of Genevieve standing at the grandmother’s front gate waiting for Stella in the sunshine, beaming excitedly, in that slightly unnerving way village kids have. The two cycle around the place which is virtually deserted, happily exchanging news and insights. Presumably, everyone else has gone to the seaside or somewhere exciting for the summer break. The only people left are the poorest. There, Stella is regarded as rich and sophisticated – a Parisian - granting her another helpful perspective on her situation.

Back in Paris the trending topic is boys, inevitably. The gossip with Gladys is who and what she’s done with them, but it’s mostly fantasy, stuff they’ve heard about. Down in the pits, Stella’s go-to hunka hunka is the near catatonic Alain-Bernard (Guillaume Depardieu – only three months before his tragic death) a local petty gangster - or even a petty local gangster - who finds himself playing pinball and pool with Stella as a way of zoning everything else out. Looking like a lean and bedraggled musketeer, it is an exquisite cameo in dissolution and depression. Yet even Alain-Bernard notices how she is suddenly drawing valentines all over her notebook, not quite with him anymore or in the game and he bids her a resigned farewell she barely catches. Stella has discovered the world of romance after crashing a birthday party with Gladys, who was invited, both of them in glad rags and heavy make-up. There are boys there, huge great stumbling oafs on their best behaviour. At first Stella is shunned, because, well, she’s Stella and they’re just too polite to throw a crasher out. So she camps on a sofa watching the action – clumsy slow dancing – but then one of the boys invites her to dance and all her fears about looking plain or not belonging evaporate and it’s just shuffling around with someone twice your height, heart soaring.

Verheyde is strong on script and performances; less so on framing or picturing the action. There’s a lot of jerky, handheld camera that does nothing for mood or description, begs a little more storyboard planning. So I’m not about to claim this as great movie-making. It feels more like a TV or small screen movie, although it did get a cinema release in France and apparently did quite well. What is worth recommending is a movie about childhood, not just for children. It’s not exactly a coming-of-age movie because innocence is not truly lost – she is still only eleven or twelve, after all. But there is this other territory between childhood and adolescence, much of it tacit or understated and Verheyde and her star Barbara are superb at comminucating this. For all Stella’s precocious understanding of sex and adultery, it’s the romantic side to affairs she has yet to properly grasp, what is to be offered and accepted there, quite apart from bodies. Compared with something like Le Gamin au velo, this is fairly gentle fare, but the territory covered is every bit as harsh. If Verheyde sacrifices some of the excitement of the D’Ardennes brothers, she also avoids some of the melodrama. The movie ends happily, with Stella scraping through on her final assessment and with the advocacy of Gladys and this seems a realistic or satisfactory result, Life mostly turns on small, hard won victories. Art often has to sneak up on you, to really take a hold.
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