Ça commence aujourd'hui Review
It's easy to underrate Bertrand Tavernier - over the course of a three-decade career he's tackled such a wide range of films (thrillers, period pieces, jazz, contemporary social realism, even science fiction) that it often seems as though the only constant factors are his considerable intelligence and innate good taste. He's one of the most unfailingly reliable of European directors - when you see one of his films, you might not get a masterpiece, but you're unlikely to go away empty-handed - and Ça commence aujourd'hui (which translates as It All Starts Today) won't do anything to hurt his reputation.
It runs along the lines of earlier Tavernier films such as his semi-documentary police thriller L.627, in that it has a dual function of telling a story and illustrating contemporary French social problems from the point of view of a particular profession - part of a long and honourable tradition that can be traced back to the likes of Los Olvidados and Bicycle Thieves, and whose finest contemporary exponents include Ken Loach, Abbas Kiarostami and John Sayles (I was vividly reminded of the teachers' debate about education systems in Lone Star), though Tavernier is very much in their company.
Daniel Lefebvre (Philippe Torreton) is the head of a primary school in an unusually deprived area, whose job causes him to face appalling moral dilemmas almost every working day. If, for instance, he sees that a child is clearly being abused, or living in such extreme poverty that the family hasn't had any electricity for months, should he tell the authorities and chance that child's removal from his parents? Or should he do nothing, and run the risk that the child's mother might decide to end it all and take her children with her?
He's not helped at all by the local authorities, whose representatives mostly spout meaningless statistics to justify their cutting the number of paediatricians or financial support for school meals, or refer to theoretical manuals whose recommendations are a world apart from reality - Daniel's school doesn't have any special status despite the overwhelming majority of its pupils living below the poverty line. The mayor's left-wing ideals have been buried in his desperate struggle just to stay in his job and keep out the far-right Front National, while even the most dedicated social workers have to admit that their job is basically impossible (each has to deal with 250 cases, any one of which could need more than one daily visits).
His home life, too, isn't exactly the picture of domestic bliss - he's been living with artist Valeria for two years, and their relationship seems sound, but her son deeply resents his presence, largely because he never knew his real father, and feels that Daniel pays rather more attention to his charges than he does to him - not unreasonably, under the circumstances, as many of them are in a similar situation.
This could all too easily have fallen squarely into the "worthy but dull" category. That it entirely fails to do so - in fact, it's one of the most gripping films I've seen in recent months - is because Tavernier and his writers (one of whom, Dominique Sampiero is a teacher himself) know the importance of dramatising social issues through action as opposed to simplistic soapbox preaching.
The film offers no panaceas or easy answers - it doesn't pretend that the climax, where Valeria teaches the children to make a large-scale collective art project, is going to offer any serious long-term answers to endemic social problems, but it also doesn't patronise its characters or its audience - none of the teachers are saints, and all have their patience stretched well beyond the limit for understandable but unavoidable reasons. You get the feeling that you're watching a randomly-chosen period in the lives of these people, but that's not a criticism - it's just the way things are.
And though a few of the issues dealt with are specific to France, most are universal, and I can think of plenty of British teachers of my acquaintance who would find more than enough to identify with here. The fact that it's set in a former mining community - hence the high unemployment and general poverty - provides more than enough parallels, and the marked resemblance to the similarly socially-conscious work of Ken Loach probably isn't a coincidence (Loach has a rather bigger following in France than he does in his native country, and Tavernier is not only a formidable British cinema buff but even worked as Loach's French publicist before turning director). It can't have been an easy film to make, given that much of the cast is aged around five, but Tavernier makes it all seem effortless. It's a subtle, understated, deceptively powerful film.
Going from the quality of the French DVDs I've seen so far, French consumers clearly have high expectations, and they're unlikely to be disappointed here. The picture is well-nigh faultless: anamorphic, framed at the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio, pin-sharp, in perfect physical condition and with a near-total absence of any digital artefacting, even in the darker scenes. It's not the kind of film that really demands a demonstration-quality picture, but it's hardly a drawback that it's been given one.
The sound is Dolby Digital 5.1, though to be honest this doesn't make much difference - it's a very dialogue-heavy film, and when the subwoofer suddenly kicked in during a disco scene it was more jarring than anything else! But the quality of the recording and mixing is well up to contemporary standards, and all in all I had few complaints.
I had even fewer complaints about the fact that the language options include a set of English subtitles, and though these are sometimes rather too American for my taste (references to "grade school" and translation of francs into dollars, as well as other US slang terms), I'd rather have them than nothing at all, which is the usual alternative when it comes to French DVDs. There are just sixteen chapter stops, which is a little sparse for a nearly two-hour film.
Canal Plus have also made a real effort with the extras. There's the original trailer (in anamorphic 16:9), a set of filmographies for Bertrand Tavernier and his three leads, and nine deleted scenes (in non-anamorphic 2.35:1) - as ever, it's easy to see why they were deleted (they add little to our understanding of the characters), but it's nice to have them. They're not indexed separately - you have to watch them in one clump, which runs for just under eleven minutes.
Rather more substantial is a documentary about the making of the film ('Ça commence comme un film'), whose 47-minute running time reveals that it's rather more than the standard promotional featurette. It includes interviews with many of the major participants on both sides of the camera (including Tavernier and Torreton), together with real-life teachers (whose experience inspired events in the film) and the inhabitants of Valenciennes, the town where the film was made (including the mayor). All this is intercut with clips from the film itself, behind-the-scenes footage and shots of its premiere (complete with teary-eyed audiences). My only real complaint is that it isn't broken up into chapter stops, but otherwise this is exemplary - not least because unlike many such documentaries it's not solely about the film: the ongoing issues it raises are given equal weight.
And nearly two hours of additional background information comes courtesy of Tavernier's commentary track, which is as reliably solid and intelligent as you'd expect from his films and interviews. He's particularly good on the technical demands the film made - it wasn't just the children who were non-professionals: quite a few of the adult actors were as well, and a fair amount of the film was improvised not merely out of necessity (when you're dealing with a room full of five-year-olds, it's just not realistic to expect them all to follow direction to the letter!), but also to capture specific emotions - a teacher's birthday, for instance, was shot on the real-life actress's birthday. The commentary is somewhat intermittent - the film sound fades up whenever Tavernier is silent - but I'd rather have that than the usual rambling attempts at filling every second even when the commentator has nothing to say.
All in all, this is an excellent package that does the film full justice. My only quibble is a purely selfish one - the trailer, deleted scenes, documentary and commentary are all in unsubtitled French, but I can't in all fairness complain too much about that. After all, how many British and American DVDs supply French subtitles with their extras?