It All Starts Today (Ça commence aujourd'hui) Review
Bertrand Tavernier followed L.627 with the deliberately lightweight costume romp D’Artagnan’s Daughter (1994) and another contemporary social-problem piece, L’Appât (1995, known as The Bait in the UK and Fresh Bait in the USA). The former is minor but entertaining, the latter I have almost completely forgotten since seeing it in a cinema, not a good sign. It was here that Tavernier’s UK distribution – all but one of his dramatic features had shown here since 1980’s Death Watch had played in British cinemas – became intermittent. While we got to see It All Starts Today and Laissez-Passer, 1996’s Capitaine Conan and 2004’s Holy Lola remain missing in action in the UK. It’s too soon to tell if we are likely to see Tavernier’s new film, the English-language In the Electric Mist, adapted from a James Lee Burke novel and starring Tommy Lee Jones. (Tavernier has continued to make documentaries, notably 1992’s four-hour film about the Algerian War, La guerre sans nom, but as far as I know they haven’t been shown in the UK either.)
Made seven years after L.627, It All Starts Today (Ça commence aujourd’hui) is something of a companion piece. It’s an examination of a French institution (previously the police, here primary education) and the struggles of a group of characters to do a good job against insuperable odds – lack of funding, disrespect, bureaucracy, social deprivation, you name it. Although both films have a leading character, he is not a lone hero who defeats the villains, solves the problems and saves the day, as the Hollywood version would have done. At the end of the film, the villains (though they would certainly not see themselves as such) are still in place and the problems still exist and remain overwhelming, but our protagonist is still striving to make a difference. Philippe Torreton and Didier Bézace play in both films, swapping lead role and featured player status between them. Tavernier regulars such as composer Philippe Sarde and DP Alain Choquart make a strong impression. And to complete the links, one of Tavernier’s children was involved in the film’s conception: previously it was son Nils who helped instigate the film, while here daughter Tiffany and son-in-law Dominique Sampiero co-wrote the script. The film is based partly on the latter’s experiences as a school teacher.
Daniel Lefebvre (Torreton) is a primary school teacher in a particularly deprived area of France, poverty-stricken since the mines closed. Parents are often in a state of depression due to long-term unemployment and frequently resort to drink or drugs. Daniel has to make hard decisions every day, when faced with evidence of child abuse or extreme poverty. The authorities offer little help: the Mayor is desperate to keep out the Far Right, while social workers, doctors and nurses are overwhelmed.
As with L.627, there’s plenty of incident but no over-arching plot. Tavernier films this documentary style, with much use of Steadicam, operated by DP Alain Choquart. Tavernier does shoot in his often-favoured Scope format, but the use of Super 35 (rather than anamorphic lenses) and naturalistic lighting gives the film a grittier feel that’s entirely appropriate.
Primary schools have not often been the subject of feature films: most screen teachers we see are in secondary or college education. (There have been some documentaries on the subject, such as Etre et avoir.) It All Starts Today could have been very depressing – though it is certainly quite moving in places – or simply worthy. Daniel Lefebvre is an engaging central character – helped no end by the performance of Philippe Torreton, who is an actor you rarely catch “acting” – and the film he appears in is an uplifting one. His guiding principle is It doesn’t have to be this way, and that’s true for the film as well.
It All Starts Today is one of five Tavernier films released on DVD by Optimum. It is encoded for Region 2 only. Elsewhere on this site, Michael Brooke has reviewed a 2001 French Region 2 release from Le Studio Canal Plus, though I don’t have a copy of that edition to hand to compare the Optimum disc with.
The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced. There’s really nothing to fault here: the picture is sharp, even in the darker scenes, and the muted colour scheme shows up well.
There are two soundtrack options: Dolby Surround (the default) and Dolby Digital 5.1 The latter is preferable, but there’s not much in it. This is a very dialogue-driven film, and there’s not much use for elaborate sound mixing. The subwoofer fills in the bass parts of Sarde’s score, and is particularly noticeable in a disco scene. English subtitles are optional. There are the usual, and insufficient, eight chapter stops. (If you really want them, the French R2 has Italian and Spanish dubbed tracks.)
As usual with Optimum’s other Tavernier discs, there is a video introduction from the director and the theatrical trailer (1:42). The introduction is as usual in two parts, the first fourteen minutes being a general introduction common to all five discs. Go forward a chapter stop and the remaining eighteen minutes are specific to It All Starts Today. Tavernier as ever has a tendency to digress but he’s worth sticking with, as he talks about a film which is clearly close to his heart. He’s also concerned about being pigeonholed, expecially as a “political” director, which is one reason for the variety of subject matter and styles he has tackled during his career. He doesn’t provide a commentary here as he does on the French disc (albeit in French).
There is an additional extra, which is carried over from the French disc: The Making of It All Starts Today (47:54). Presented in 4:3, this follows the location shoot in the town of Valenciennes, and includes interviews with director and leading actor as well as locals. At one point Tavernier is confronted by some youths who are worried that the film will give a bad impression of their home town. This featurette then jumps six months to the film’s premiere in the town. The school where the film is shot is now named after Tavernier. This is a solid extra, and much better than the usual EPK fluff. (The French disc also contains deleted scenes and filmographies.)
I began these five reviews by mentioning how badly served Tavernier is on DVD in the UK. Before Optimum released these five discs (and a box set would be welcome as I’m sure many people will be interested in all of them) there was just one of his films available on disc, namely Artificial Eye’s DVD of Laissez-Passer. Part of this may be due to the fact that apart from It All Starts Today, Laissez-Passer was the only one of Tavernier’s films released in British cinemas since DVDs were introduced. Its distributor had by then started releasing DVDs and so this film appeared on disc as a matter of course. His other films are back catalogue (if they were released in the UK at all) and as such are subject to the vagaries of distributors. Even the mostly English-language (some French) ’Round Midnight, an Oscar-winner for Herbie Hancock’s jazz score, made for Warner Brothers, is not available on disc here, though it is elsewhere. (There are some other titles available in the USA, such as the early feature Let Joy Reign Supreme, released by Kino.)
Of course, there is the French market, but buyer beware. Most of Tavernier’s back catalogue, including some documentaries, is or has been available in France, but for the most part the disc aren’t English-friendly. (The English-language Death Watch is one that is available there. I would advise caution about Daddy Nostalgie aka These Foolish Things: although the film is a mixture of English and French dialogue, the French DVD apparently only has subtitles in French.)
There’s clearly a dichotomy between director reputation and DVD availability, and a gap to be filled. Let’s hope that Optimum and maybe Artificial Eye – who released some key titles in the cinemas and on VHS and may still have the rights to them – start to fill it sooner rather than later.
8 out of 10
9 out of 10
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3 out of 10