Film: It shouldn't happen to a teacher

It all starts today ... Director: Bertrand Tavernier Starring: Philippe Torreton, Maria Pitarresi, Nadia Kaci (118 mins; 12)
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The Independent Culture
The screenplay of Bertrand Tavernier's It all starts today ... was written by the director himself in collaboration with his daughter Tiffany and his son-in-law, Dominique Sampiero, who is, like its protagonist, Daniel, both a schoolteacher and a poet (in Daniel's case, unpublished). It was, apparently, a horrible story told him by Sampiero that prompted Tavernier to make the film. Driven to despair by having had her heating and electricity cut off one ferociously severe winter (in France it's illegal to disconnect from mid-November onwards but the utilities circumvent this little snag by disconnecting in autumn then "forgetting" to reconnect), the young mother of one of his pupils killed herself and her two children.

That story turns up in the episodically structured film, along with several others which were probably also based on Sampiero's experiences. A woman, chided for failing to contribute a 30-franc subscription (about pounds 3) to the school fund (for outings, treats, etc), sullenly confesses that, if she did, her family would starve. A taciturn tot, his back criss-crossed with scars, declines to name his tormentor but is finally persuaded to whisper his identity - "uncle" (his mother's boyfriend) - into the principal's ear. A group of older boys vandalise their own school "for a joke".

The school on which the narrative focuses is located in a deprived region of northern France. It could, however, just as easily have been set in the north of England. The cinephilic Tavernier is an admirer of directors such as Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Mark Herman, and there are individual shots in It all starts today ... of harassed mothers leading their offspring home between monotonously twinned rows of back-to-backs that, the odd giveaway detail apart (such as shutters instead of lace curtains), might have come from a contemporary British film.

So, yes, obviously, it's moving. We all went to school, and even lousy films about schooldays are in a category apart. There's always something to awaken a dormant but not quite moribund memory, to touch a nerve that turns out to be still unexpectedly raw. In addition, there does not exist, in the entire history of the cinema, a single ugly shot of an infant's face. By that I don't mean a pro, a diminutive trouper, such as the grisly tow-haired munchkin in The Phantom Menace, but an average little boy or girl unfussed by the camera's presence. It's always affecting, always beautiful, always inherently cinematic.

So it's a mystery. I was perfectly conscious, as I watched Tavernier's film, that the harrowing social problems it exposes and indicts have their equivalents in life - indeed, given the circumstances of Sampiero's involvement, I was willing to accept that he had been witness to them. Yet not for a single instant did I find what I was watching credible. Not one character, not one scene, not one fleeting incident.

There are too many examples to cite, but consider Daniel himself, played by Philippe Torreton. Compassionate, smoulderingly sexy, heroically patient with his infant charges, as much of a dab hand with Rimbaud as with nursery rhymes, he lives with a raven-haired waitress who moonlights as a sculptor - oh, nothing too artsy-fartsy, you understand, but, as befitting her bohemian feistiness, the kind of macho-ecological creativity which involves mucking in with a blow-torch and a pair of welder's goggles. She has a sulky son from a previous marriage who, if at first resentful of Daniel - "You're not my father!" he cries (a line that should have its own special key on every screenwriter's laptop) - is eventually won over by his virile sensitivity. Daniel even confounds our expectations by not having a fling with a glamorous social worker - at which point I found myself cynically wondering whether Tavernier had deliberately made her glamorous, then deliberately denied them the expected affair, simply so as to retort to interviewers, "You see? They don't go to bed together. No one can accuse me of pandering to the public."

To be sure, Daniel's faith in his vocation briefly wavers - but then, so did Christ's on the cross. The point, though, is that it's impossible for us to swallow the optimistic ending when it's contingent on the presence of a positive hero whose uplifting like we haven't seen since the glory days of Soviet socialist realism. Wise old Gide said, "C'est avec de bons sentiments qu'on fait de mauvais livres", and the same applies to films.

I'm not opposed in principle to the cinema of political activism (though I do believe that there are other, infinitely more effective outlets for social protest), but one has to ask oneself who such a film is for. (And I don't just mean Tavernier but the similarly hectoring works of Loach at his preachy worst.) Since the people it portrays will certainly not go to it, it's therefore likely to be seen exclusively by those whom - with a breathtaking lack of subtlety (basically, all teachers are good, all inspectors, councillors and mayors are bad) - it lambasts as their middle-class oppressors.

There's also the equally important question of what such a film is for. Will it in fact change anything? The director himself seems unconvinced. In practically every interview he's given, he has answered the question by asking another, "Would the absence of such a film change more?", a cock-eyed piece of logic I don't even begin to understand.

Tavernier is clearly an angry man and he's made an angry film and it's a film which made me angry too. Ultimately, though, I was angry less because of what the film showed than because of what it was.