‘The Competition’ review: vying for a spot at an elite film school

La Fémis is an atypical film school: The establishment, in Paris, has no teachers and no classes as such. Instead, students work with a variety of French film professionals in specific disciplines to learn by doing. Thousands of students apply every year.

Claire Simon’s documentary “Le Concours” shows the process by which 40 students, the limit in the term described here, are accepted into La Fémis – which is an acronym for the European Foundation for Image and Sound Professions Foundation Image and Sound Professions).

If you think you might be allergic to a film about film school, I’m going to agree with you: it has enough expected elements (e.g., a quasi-parade of young white directors explaining their visions) that you wouldn’t be entirely wrong to give a pass. But “The Competition,” after showing the process of submitting nominations and attending assemblies (Simon risks replicating the boredom she portrays here) is in many ways juicy far beyond its expectations.

I teach film, and this film gave me some invigorating lessons. I gasped at the way some admissions examiners slumped in front of applicants. (Resolved: Be more vigilant about posture in class.) And I nearly gag when another examiner pointed out to his colleagues, with dismissive levity, that his class admissions should include “one Asian, one black and an Arab “.

Almost comedic is a sequence near the end where a large panel of reviewers argue over which contestants (if any) are trying to put one on them. France invented deconstruction, I know, but the rhetoric here, in pursuit of bad faith that I haven’t seen in any of the student candidates we’ve seen interviewed, goes beyond reason.

Writing about this film when it was screened under another English title, critic Richard Brody claimed that it shows why innovation in French cinema has (in his eyes) all but dried up. The film’s most provocative aspect is its quasi-methodical portrayal of hive mind thinking pursued as some kind of norm – not just by examiners, but by hopeful contestants.

Martin E. Berry