Back to school for a class act

Lessons in learning from Angel and Forestier

by Richard Mowe

Actress Sara Forestier and director Hélène Angel on the set of Elementary
Actress Sara Forestier and director Hélène Angel on the set of Elementary Photo: Unifrance
The French, without wishing to sound chauvinistic, hold their education system in high regard. Cinema has reflected that interest in films from Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite in 1933, through the gentle documentary about life in a country infant school Etre et Avoir (2002) by Nicolas Phlibert to Laurent Cantet’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner The Class (2008), set in a raw inner city school. And let’s not forget Abdellatif Kechiche’s L’Esquive (2003), Louis Malle’s 1987 Au Revoir Les Enfants, Julie Bertuccelli’s School of Babel (2013), and Christophe Barratier’s 2004 The Chorus.

Joining the throng is director Hélène Angel with Elementary (Primaire) in which Sara Forestier plays a primary school teacher who has no time for a personal life and lives in an apartment in the grounds with her ten-year-old son.

Angel says: “Education is one of the founding tenets of the Republic, so perhaps that explains the eternal fascination and why there are so many films on the subject. We have a saying that school is the mother and daughter of society and the crucible of civilisation. It is not all rosy by any means: teachers no longer have the same standing in society as they once had and the image of the teacher in France has become downgraded for lots of reasons. People say that we are behind the times compared to some other countries all of which makes teachers vulnerable.”

She stresses that it was never her intention to make a film with a message about the system.

“Yes, the French have a particular concern and interest about their schools but my jumping off point was much more personal. Sara’s character Florence is, in a way, a disguised portrait of myself. I wanted to create a portrait of a contemporary woman who is prepared to fight for what she believes in. Like many women today, she does not have time to devote to relationships but she feels passionate about her work and her environment,” she explains.

Sara Forestier in Elementary: 'I was always top of the class and I had this great thirst to learn. I loved going to school even if I was not always well behaved'
Sara Forestier in Elementary: 'I was always top of the class and I had this great thirst to learn. I loved going to school even if I was not always well behaved' Photo: Unifrance
To ensure authenticity, Angel spent two years observing the rituals of the classroom. “I had to understand it from the inside,” she says. “But above all, that allowed me to identify the challenges and the contradictions. For example, as parents, we all feel that raising children is a mission that has many joys, but which can also be rather melancholic. We format, we turn away from the freedom of primary instincts. That is blindingly obvious when you are in a classroom. We can see that school has imprisoned Florence. I hope the film reflects all these contradictory feelings.”

Both Angel and Forestier love children - “and we both wanted to work with a lot of them.” Angel denotes a common thread in all of her four films to date (among them her debut feature Skin Of Man, Heart Of Beast/Peau d’homme coeur de bête and La Vie Parisienne) - a link with childhood. “In the meantime I had become a mother so I wanted to make something my son could see because he was always complaining that I never made films he could watch at his age. He was coming to the end of his time at primary school, which signals the end of innocence and childhood so the moment felt right. The children we found were excellent - but the real challenge was to make sure we guarded their spontaneity.”

Before Forestier came on to her radar, Angel was having difficulty finding the right actress for the role of the teacher. Forestier won a Cesar for her performance in The Names Of Love (Le Nom De Gens), a best newcomer Cesar for Games of Love And Chance (L’esquive) and starred in Emmanuelle Bercot’s Cannes-opener from two years ago Standing Tall. She adds: “Then Sara arrived on the scene with all her energy which I knew from the other films I had seen her in. It was love at first sight for both of us. She plunges in to everything she does, rather than ‘composing’ a character and that is one of her great strengths. She can be both powerful and fragile at the same time - just like the character.”

Forestier admits that school had been extremely important in her life. “The theme of the film really attracted me. I was always top of the class and I had this great thirst to learn. I loved going to school even if I was not always well behaved. School is neutral territory. No matter what your life is like outside school you have the chance to progress. When preparing for a role I always have to go with my emotions first and then the words follow which is exactly what happened when creating Florence.”

Two of the pupils in Elementary: Sara Forestier, who plays their teacher, says: 'They are all about pure veracity and vitality and they push you. When they intellectualise too much, when they try to pretend, they can become stiff. Then you have to help them become natural again, and off you go'
Two of the pupils in Elementary: Sara Forestier, who plays their teacher, says: 'They are all about pure veracity and vitality and they push you. When they intellectualise too much, when they try to pretend, they can become stiff. Then you have to help them become natural again, and off you go' Photo: Unifrance
How did she find working with the children? “It was just like a real class. Right away, I established a certain connection with them. They didn’t take pictures with me just because I’m an actress! I had a very direct relationship with them, quite blunt, to break down the cinema aspect and remove the barrier between reality and fiction. So to begin with, there was an equal relationship. Then, as the shoot progressed, the longer I acted as their teacher, the more they treated me as such. When they let slip a swear word, even outside of filming, oops! They took it back quickly!

“They are all about pure veracity and vitality and they push you. When they intellectualise too much, when they try to pretend, they can become stiff. Then you have to help them become natural again, and off you go.”

Angel adds: “Florence doesn’t just teach she also gives them values, and they have to become heroes of their own lives. She is full of contradictions. Teachers are so important because they teach our children to read and write and how to behave. They are helping to form the citizens of tomorrow even at this early stage. I really didn’t make the film to start a debate about education but I know a lot of teachers want to discuss it. They like the fact that it shows the sheer energy levels you need to teach - to be with all the emotions of a class full of children all day long is exhausting. And as an adult it also reminds you of your childhood.”

Elementary is released in the UK on 8 September

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