The Graduation review – Pop Idol meets arthouse at France’s elite film school

A new documentary depicts the fraught fight for places at France's prestigious school for aspiring young filmmakers. But is it worth all the hard knocks?

The French documentary The Graduation (Le Concours) – on limited release this week – begins with a crowd of young men and women congregating outside a lecture hall, waiting to start a written exam. The doors are opened and this gathering of 20-somethings rush through in a giddy frenzy.

The reason for this disconcerting eagerness is that these young folk are applying to La Fémis – a film school in Paris. It’s France’s premiere such institution, therefore one of the best in the world because the French are very particular when it comes to cinema.

It’s generously funded and highly selective. How highly selective? Well, each year thousands of applicants apply for around 50 places over a period of some months. That exam is the start of that process of brutal whittling down, hence the bracing sense of excitement – or is it, I wondered as the film reveals the low odds of securing a place that face aspiring film-makers, a kind of desperate hope?

Director Claire Simon, who teaches at the school, captures this gruellingly exacting slog of yet more exams, practical tests and the dreaded oral in front of a committee of French cinema’s leading lights. She sticks entirely within the school, and the film amounts to almost two hours’ worth of film-makers and educationalists discussing prospective students in featureless rooms. It hardly sounds promising, and yet The Graduation is fascinating, gripping even.

For all the attention to bureaucratic detail, it’s underpinned with high-stakes human drama. These hordes of keen young things are extraordinarily hungry for the few places on offer, and watching them sometimes succeed, and more often than not stumble in their attempt to impress their stony-faced interlocutors is a form of spectator sport, or high-brow reality TV: Pop Idol for an arthouse crowd.

But even more absorbing are the discussions that the teachers and selectors have once the applicants have left that room. These are sometimes cutting (“She’s just an employee, nothing more,” says one selector, dismissing one woman’s hopes of entering the Fémis’ hallowed halls); and more often they’re heated.

Given the centrality of the Fémis to French film culture, the decisions of these people really matter – and yet The Graduation left me uncertain about the rationale at work. There’s rightly a focus on talent, but more often than not this emerges as an entirely subjective definition, a question of personal taste.

I don’t think you’d be wrong to come away from The Graduation wondering whether applying to film school is worth the effort

An especially fraught discussion about the merit of admitting an eccentric young hopeful with a knack for irritating his crew seems to pivot on whether or not the guy who made Drive is a genius. There’s also a subtle class dimension at work, most evident in a revealing discussion that the interview panel have about a charismatic, industrious young bartender who wants to join the producer course. He doesn’t fit the Fémis type of articulate, highly educated and very bourgeois sensitive soul, but is that any reason to deny him a place?

I guess these questions apply to film schools in general, and I don’t think you’d be wrong to come away from The Graduation wondering whether they’re worth the effort. One of my favourite filmmakers is the Austrian documentarian Ulrich Seidl. His defiantly abrasive final-year short got him thrown out of his prestigious film school in Vienna in the mid 1970s. I’m sure that stung at the time, but do we remember his classmates who stayed on to graduate?