If Frederick Wiseman were to make a documentary about the application process for the prestigious French film school la Fémis, it might well look something like Claire Simon’s The Competition (Le Concours). While the director (who taught at la Fémis for years) offers no overt commentary on the footage which makes up this film, it still makes clear both the good intentions of the examiners and the essential brutality of a process in which the vast majority of applicants, no matter how ambitious and talented they may be, will be rejected.
Imagine what it would be like if Harvard were the only Ivy League University in the United States, charged minimal fees to everyone, and made decisions solely on the basis of demonstrated merit and potential in one’s chosen professional field (no legacy admits, no special preferences for lacrosse players or the children of donors). Then imagine that part of the application process is a series of mass examinations, interviews, and work samples, in which it is often not clear what the selection committee is looking for, conducted over a period of several months, with the pool of potential applicants winnowed after each round like contestants in a high-class version of Survivor. That’s what you get with The Competition, which was shot during the 2014 admission cycle.
The stakes are high for the applicants, because entry to la Fémis offers a leg up in a notoriously competitive industry. Graduates—whose ranks include Louis Malle, Claire Denis, Alain Resnais, Costa-Gavras, and François Ozon—have won numerous awards at major festivals like Cannes, Berlin, and Venice (more than graduates of any other film school, in fact). The stakes are also raised because the applicants are not adolescents—their average age is 23, and most have already completed three years of post-secondary education at the time of application—and because there is an upper age limit of 27 to be admitted, and each person can apply only three times.
Competitions provide a documentary with an obvious structure and easily-understood stakes and so it’s not surprising that many directors have chosen to follow the mold established by Spellbound (2002), which followed the fortunes of competitors at the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee. One key to this film’s popular success was the director’s decision to zero in on a few characters, follow them throughout the competition, and develop their backstories as if they were characters in a scripted drama. Simon has chosen a different approach. While The Competition does begin with eager applicants at the gates and ends with the posting of those selected, otherwise it has little in common with Spellbound or its many imitators—it doesn’t select a small group of applicants to focus on, for instance, and doesn’t try to explain how the selection process works. We don’t see much high emotion from the applicants or selection committees, either—instead, nearly everyone does an admirable job of remaining civil, reasonable, and fair (although sarcasm is not entirely avoided), which is great in terms of following a rational decision making process but not so useful in terms of creating compelling cinema.
The topic of The Competition is of inherent interest to those who follow global film, because France is a major player in the film world, and la Fémis is a major player in the French film industry. I particularly wanted to see it because one of my favorite filmmakers, Céline Sciamme (Tomboy, Girlhood) went to la Fémis. If you don’t arrive already interested in the topic, however, it’s more of a tough sell—you could easily get lost among all the fragments of activity that constitute this film and wonder what all the fuss is about. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Competition will be screened at Winifred Moore Auditorium on the Webster University Campus on May 10-12, at 7:30 pm. On May 10, the film will be introduced by Lionel Cuillé, director of the Centre Francophone.Tickets are $7 for the general public, $6 for seniors, Webster alumni and students from other schools, $5 for Webster staff and faculty, and free for Webster students with proper ID.