Synopsis: Based on a play by Jean-Marie Besset, Robert Salis’ Grande Ecole is an extraordinarily sensual film about the roles of power, class, race and sexuality in relationships.
In one of France’s elite private schools, a group of attractive 20-something students find themselves enmeshed in emotional and sexual power games. These games become a lot more heated and complicated when Paul (Gregori Baquet) finds himself attracted to both a lower-class Arab worker (Salim Kechiouche) and Louis-Arnault, his roommate (Jocelyn Quivrin) even though he already has a girlfriend.
Grande école 7.5
eyelights: its message about the value of sexual orientation. its frank portrayal of homo-eroticism.
eyesores: the theatrical staging of some scenes.
“I choose not to choose”
‘Grande École’ is a 2004 French drama based on the eponymous 1995 play by Jean-Marie Besset. It centres on the dynamics of three roommates and their two girlfriends, during their first year at an elite business college. In particular, it focuses on Paul, who is beginning to struggle with class conflict, social justice and his sexual identity.
I’m not really sure how to describe ‘Grande École’. In some ways it’s rather conventional: its subject matter is nothing new (although it must have been cutting-edge in 1995), and its presentation is dated (it very much feels like a late-’80s or early ’90s film). Conversely, however, its presentation of male homosexuality is bold.
This boldness is twofold.
For starters, there’s the visceral: I’ve rarely seen a film with so much male nudity that’s not explicit or even pornographic. ‘Grande École’ makes no bones about using the male body to stimulate its audience, whether it be in casual manner, or in a more direct way, to suggest Paul’s own growing attraction. Even the heterosexual sex is defined by the male form.
Secondly, there’s the film’s moral perspective, which is that hetero or homo are irrelevant terms, and that one shouldn’t be defined by or confined to a particular orientation. What it wants to say is that we are sexual, and that how this sexuality expresses itself is irrelevant – so Paul and Mécir, his first male partner, choose not one but all options.
In fact, this is interesting because Paul is in love with Agnès, and enjoys making passionate love with her, but he begins to lust for his roommate, Louis-Arnault. This creates internal conflict, because he doesn’t admit this to himself at first, eventually becoming obsessed with that which he can’t have yet longs for.
Even more fascinating is that Agnès makes the realization well before Paul does and challenges him on it – not to humiliate him, but to win him back. She decides to compete with him for Louis-Arnault: if she beds him first, Paul should stop his pursuit and come back to her, and if he beds Louis-Arnault first, she will let him go.
I was stunned not just by her approach but the extent to which she would go to goad him into action, pushing his buttons, suggesting that they make love in Louis-Arnault’s bedroom while he was away or going so far as to forcing Paul caress his body while he’s under sedation. She took him to the breaking point, challenging his new feelings.
The driving force of the picture is the transition that Paul finds himself in: torn by his growing lust, but incapable of bedding Louis-Arnault, he takes on Mécir (a young labourer at his college) as his lover. Although temporary, this affair allows him to experiment and evolve into the person that he is at the end of the picture.
Beyond his sexuality, there is also his growing social conscience, which lead him to defend and then befriend Mécir. Partly spurred by Agnès’ own social studies, at a different college, which bring into question many of the values he had been bred to believe, he begins to think that the pursuit of power and wealth are valueless.
He and his friends have plenty of brief, but interesting, exchanges about their privilege, having been raised with wealth and being handed an education that positions them for future success. One of the roommates, Chouquet, is unwavering in his position, but Louis-Arnault is a bit more diplomatic, entertaining Paul’s musings.
It’s all compelling stuff, but I had a difficult time with the leaps ‘Grande École’ made to move the characters forward. In that sense it didn’t transitions from the stage to the screen very well, because a few moments were left off-screen, were implied, but should have been more explicitly captured to fully flesh their development.
This transition from the stage also showed some limitation in some scenes, in particular during the dénouement, which was wordy in an unnatural, contrived way that plays can be. Even the way the actors performed (the way they positioned themselves, …etc.) made it feel like a play, thereby inhibiting the moment’s poignancy with artificiality.
And that’s the key issue with ‘Grande École’. Although it discusses real concerns, real situations and realistic characters, as well as challenging preconceptions, it’s presented in such a way that it doesn’t feel rooted in reality, thereby kind of neutering its effect. It remains laudable for addressing these matters, but it’s a squandered opportunity to some degree.
Still, I think that ‘Grande École’ is worth seeing if only because it’s one of those rare films that addresses male same-sex attraction in a nuanced way: it’s not a coming-out story, it’s not a tale of prejudice and it’s not done for laughs. It’s a thoughtful exploration of desire that effectively avoids pigeonholing its protagonist.
And, by extension, its audience.
Date of viewing: June 4, 2014