On the crest of a new wave

French director Jean-Paul Civeyrac looks back to the future

by Richard Mowe

Paris calling … Andranic Manet as Etienne in A Paris Education by Jean-Paul Civeyrac
Paris calling … Andranic Manet as Etienne in A Paris Education by Jean-Paul Civeyrac Photo: UniFrance

Art imitates life in French director Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s black and white ode to the New Wave, in which a young cinephile leaves Lyon to study film in Paris, finds a flat with fellow film geeks, and spends hours expounding on Bresson and obscure Russian directors.

Wind back a few years to 1987 and it was Civeyrac, born in 1964, who left a small town near St Etienne and travelled to Paris to work in cinema.

“Finally I decided to stay in Paris. In a few years I completed my first feature and at the same time I began teaching cinema. So I know how students behave and what they think. The film, of course, is inspired by things that I experienced but also by things that students go through today,” Civeyrac told me during the Unifrance Rendezvous with French Cinema.

“Probably for the first time in my life the film was made quite fast. I had a few ideas then two days later I began the writing. Three months after that I had finished the script and then in another four months I was shooting it. I don’t think it would ever happen like that again but with this film I knew who the characters were first hand. I had never thought of doing film about film students as such but the wider subject excited me.

Jean-Paul Civeyrac: "“For me coming to Paris was like coming to Tokyo - it was a real adventure.”
Jean-Paul Civeyrac: "“For me coming to Paris was like coming to Tokyo - it was a real adventure.” Photo: © Carole Bethuel

“For me coming to Paris was like coming to Tokyo - it was a real adventure. My parents liked the cinema and as I was growing up I saw lots of films. I started to read cinema magazines and books and to take it more seriously. The desire to make films was there but it seemed to be very far away at that time so instead I started studying philosophy in Lyon. I started applying to film schools and I was lucky enough to be offered a place, which gave me the opportunity to come to Paris to start studying cinema.”

He was also inspired by I Am Twenty, a 1962 film by Russian director Marlen Knoutsiev which was recommended by one of his students. “I Am Twenty is about three friends and this film came to me straight away, with the idea of ??writing a story primarily about friendship. Then it developed into a story about film students, which allowed me to talk about things that were a part of my own learning experience, and also what I perceive today in the film students that I regularly encounter, given that I’ve been teaching for more than 20 years now.”

Civeyrac divides his time between directing and teaching at the film school La Fémis. He relishes the interaction between him and his students. “I like keeping a continuous contact with young people. Often they’re making shorts around you with very little means and that creates a sort of excitement and liberty. That is very stimulating. Obviously teaching helps to give me a livelihood so I am not under pressure to keep making films - or at least films that make money. Living and working Paris is, of course, very expensive.”

As a director he appreciates working with debutant actors. “We did a casting process over more than two months and I knew most of those who ended up in the film apart from one or two of them. I like that a lot - because there is a certain fragility among actors who are just starting out. There is a sort of innocence if you like because they are not conscious yet of the kind of effect that they can produce. And therefore they do not try to control it. That is what is so great because there is an abandonment among young people in the way they act which isn’t there as they mature and try to control things more. It is that sense of being pliable that I really liked.”

Civeyrac opted to use Bach for the music because it is “synonymous with purity.” He added: “He’s the only composer I can listen to every day without ever getting bored. It’s a liking that I wanted the character of Etienne to share because when I was a student, I forged my character with the help of radical artists – Godard, Straub/Huillet, Bresson, Pasolini, Genet, Emily Dickinson and, yes, Johann Sebastian Bach. Having solid points of reference seems to me a legitimate need when you’re a student, but they wind up crushing all the rest. Over time, you learn to love many other things, without the contradictions that you might rather dogmatically presuppose.”

Between the age of 18 and 28 the director hardly saw any American films. He caught up with them later. “At that time I was watching the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, Pasolini, all the great directors. My taste was formed by European cinema. Of course now I love American cinema. But for me the most powerful cinema is European and Japanese.”

Civeyrac, whose previous films have included Man’s Gentle Love and Young Girls In Black, says there is a recurring theme in his work about doubts. In one interview he suggested: “My characters have deep faults. I like it when they’re passionate, but with certain things that undermine them: they doubt things. The film is built on opposites, contradictions and different characters and it’s really this game of opposites that eventually builds a nuanced universe where there are no heroes. I can’t do success story films because I don’t believe in them. I like films where heroism is questioned, in which characters are more ungrateful, more difficult to love, and are supported from within, rather than looked down on. In life, we meet a lot of people like that, we’re also a bit like that ourselves – we’re not necessarily friendly all the time.”

Not much has changed in the way he has taught over the years except that TV series have now entered the curriculum. “In my day it was pure cinema. As long as auteur cinema can still exist I have no problem with platforms such as Netflix and Amazon. What I am disturbed about, however, is the trend to watch films on computer screens, tablets or mobiles. It is not the same aesthetic as watching a film in the cinema. In France we are quite protected and we can continue to make films that are not constrained by the demands of TV.”

In the midst of pre-production on a new film due to shoot in June Civeyrac says parts of the budget remain to be sourced. He describes it as “almost a genre film with lots of suspense.” He hates the idea of being stuck in a rut. “I will always try to widen my ways of expression,” he said.

A Paris Education is released by New Wave Films on 14 February 2020.

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