Grande École

Grande École


Reviewed by: Nick Jones

On the surface, Grande École is a typical French film. Right from the outset it hits us with a sex scene and, as the narrative unravels, it soon becomes clear that sexuality and desire are its central preoccupations and all the other issues (class, social status, race) are just a footnote.

Paul (Gregory Baquet) is about to start his university life at one of the top Parisian colleges to study business. His girlfriend Agnes (Alice Taglioni) is going to an even more prestigious establishment to study literature and asks Paul to move in with him. He declines, saying that the distance from his college is too far, but when he starts his first term with two other men and slowly falls for his handsome, athletic roommate Louis-Arnault (Jocelyn Quiverin), it becomes clear that is more than just geographical distance that is getting between them.

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Although Louis-Arnault is overtly masculine and has a beautiful girlfriend (Elodie Navarre), Paul cannot fight his newfound feelings and finds himself staring longingly at his friend and soon his obsession leads him to adopt Single White Female-style behaviour (albeit very innocently) as he snoops around Louis-Arnault's room and even starts wearing his boxer shorts.

Agnes detects that Paul fancies Louis-Arnault and, in a curious twist, challenges her bi-curious boyfriend to a wager as to who can seduce Louis-Arnault first. If Paul wins Agnes will leave and never say a bad word about it. If Agnes wins then Paul has to give up his homosexual longings and be exclusively heterosexual and monogamous with her.

As if this wasn't enough emotional stress for someone in their first term, to make matters worse Paul also forms a bond with Mécir (Salim Kechiouche), a local builder, who has just started working on-site at the university. This seems unlikely in that Mécir is working-class and Algerian and Paul was brought up by a rich, bigoted father, who taught him not to mix with such people.

When Paul and friends witness Mécir being bullied by his co-workers, Paul steps in to defend him. Mécir turns out to be gay and later the two become embroiled in a complicated relationship, made all the more difficult by Paul's continued fascination with Louis-Arnault.

Director Robert Salis very slowly weaves all these narrative strands together and you just have to sit and wait for its climactic conclusion. Grande École begins with explosives, as Paul and Agnes make love on the night of Bastille Day, below a sky of fireworks. And 10 minutes into the film, you know it will end up with fireworks, too, and that someone (perhaps everyone) will get hurt.

On paper, this sounds like it could have worked well, but it just doesn't. Rather than focusing on the central, emotional aspect of the story - Paul coming to terms with his sexuality - Salis tries to cover other issues in too much detail. He does this through the political views of the students who argue tirelessly with each other about class and race. And when they open their mouths you just don't believe what they say, because the characters are too poorly drawn for you to buy into their arguments.

If Agnes is such a caring person, with grand aspirations to be a human rights activist, why does she torment her boyfriend so cruelly in the scene where she forces him to touch Louis-Arnault as he is lies unconscious in hospital, having just been stabbed in the stomach?

Salis also introduces people too conveniently and discards them at will. The third roommate, Chouqet (Arthur Jugnot) appears to be a lead character, but disappears half way through only to return right at the end, in time for the showdown. Mécir is an interesting addition, and very sensitively acted by Kechiouche, but the plot fails him. There is no mention of his religion and although he professes that "hetero, homo, all that's out, it's meaningless", you feel that for a Muslim it wouldn't be quite so easy and you expect Paul to challenge him on this area. But, like many things in this film, it goes unsaid, and you are left feeling short-changed by a script that conveniently ignores certain issues and abandons characters for its own means.

Reviewed on: 05 Feb 2006
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A complex bisexual Parisian college entanglement, with racial undertones.
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Director: Robert Salis

Writer: Robert Salis, Jean-Marie Besset, based on the play by Jean-Marie Besset

Starring: Gregori Baquet, Alice Taglioni, Jocelyn Quivrin, Elodie Navarre, Arthur Jugnot, Salim Kechiouche, Eva Darlan

Year: 2004

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France


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