“The Competition,” a shrewd and absorbing documentary from the director Claire Simon, eavesdrops on the months-long selection process at La Fémis, France’s most prestigious film school. It is neither an easy process nor an orthodox one. The thousands of candidates who apply each year for about 40 coveted slots must pass a three-hour written exam requiring them to analyze a film clip; undergo a series of interviews and tests about their specific disciplines; and be grilled about their background and aspirations by a board of industry professionals.
The state-funded, Paris-based academy leans heavily on those industry figures to help choose and rear the next generation of French filmmakers. As an administrator notes at the outset, La Fémis has no classes and no professors; the four-year training program consists mainly of practical workshops with film professionals. Its alums include such notable directors as Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, Pascale Ferran, François Ozon, Céline Sciamma, André Téchiné and the late Theo Angelopoulos and Alain Resnais.
In peeking behind closed doors at the long, talky, often fractious meetings where applicants are discussed, “The Competition” borrows some of the fly-on-the-wall texture of a Frederick Wiseman documentary, plus a little of the juice that makes contest-based reality television so addictive. Simon, well-accustomed to training her camera on teeming human environments (such as Paris’ Gare du Nord, the setting of 2013’s “Human Geography”), formerly taught at La Fémis, which accounts for both her access and the ease with which her camera patiently navigates the school’s Montmartre facilities.
She also has a talent for teasing out tension and drama through sustained observation and for sketching in just enough information — the narrative outline of a student’s project, the look of patient indulgence or barely disguised exasperation on an evaluator’s face — to hook your interest. It doesn’t take much, really. If the process of passing judgment at all fascinates you (and perhaps it goes without saying that it would fascinate a critic), it’s hard to resist “The Competition’s” extensive breakdown of how one weighs the merits of artistic goals and visions that tend to elude the usual scoring mechanisms.
“Everyone has the right to an opinion,” a panelist says at one point, and in its quiet, deceptively dry manner, “The Competition” revels in the maddening disparities of taste that lead one evaluator to give a paper a high mark of 19 while another bestows a stingy 6. During the face-to-face interviews, even more subjective questions of charm and personality come into play. A socially awkward but potentially gifted directing candidate splits his jury down the middle, prompting some of the movie’s sharpest exchanges: “[Carl Theodor] Dreyer wouldn’t exactly have been full of the joys of life in an interview,” one evaluator notes, while another agrees that “being crazy doesn’t stop you being a great director.”
There’s a stimulating line of inquiry at work here, and it concerns the apparent discrepancy between what is often being measured (charisma and communication skills) and what is required (resourcefulness, vision, talent). As someone notes after a grueling interview with a tongue-tied screenwriting candidate, some writers write — and write brilliantly — because they’re not particularly good at speaking. It’s an issue that reverberates beyond the scope of the movie and into the larger arena of the French film industry, raising the question of whether the pipeline is being supplied with dutiful, well-spoken professionals or bold, innovative artists (or, ideally, a mix of the two).
At various points, questions of diversity and representation inevitably slip into the proceedings. At a time when race-based criteria in university admissions have been the subject of heated debate in the U.S., it’s hard not to notice that most of the applicants we see are white, a reality that “The Competition” itself trusts us to acknowledge. One evaluator makes irritating light of the matter, quipping that it would be good to have “an Asian, a black, an Arab.” When a rare applicant of color does appear, a black woman from the Ivory Coast, she is blithely dismissed by judges who seem to have slept through the most compelling, and distinctive, part of her interview.
We never encounter her again, and Simon isn’t one to linger or editorialize. But amid this shrewd, fragmented look at how swiftly and sometimes arbitrarily power operates, she ensures that our memory of that young woman lingers.
French with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Playing: Laemmle’s Glendale, Glendale