“It’s a purgatory”: Claire Simon on her new documentary and the elite French school it where it’s set

Even though I watch a lot of documentaries, I — like most Americans — didn’t have an opportunity to see the work of French filmmaker Claire Simon in a theater until very recently. That’s because although Simon has been a venerable force in French cinema for decades, none of her movies ever had a proper theatrical release in the US prior to this year.

That’s finally changing. In February, Metrograph, a specialty arthouse cinema in New York City, selected Simon’s film Le Concours (The Competition) as the first film to be released under its new distribution arm, Metrograph Pictures. And watching The Competition, it’s hard to believe it’s taken so long for Simon’s documentaries in particular to reach America — they’re similar in nature to the work of the greatest American documentarians, including directors like Frederick Wiseman.

I first saw The Competition, which was filmed in 2014, at the all-documentary True/False Film Festival in 2017, where the director received a prize for her contribution to documentary cinema. It was riveting: Simon turned her camera on the highly selective admissions process at Paris’s La Fémis film school, one of the most competitive film schools in the world.


Hopeful students face a panel of formidable judges in The Competition.

Hopeful students face a panel of formidable judges in The Competition.
Metrograph Pictures

In the film, hundreds of applicants gather to write an essay, participate in acting and directing exercises, and talk to a panel of judges drawn from France’s elite cinema institutions (like museums, theaters, and libraries). Only a small number are selected to ultimately enroll in the school, which boasts alumni like Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad), Arnaud Desplechin (My Golden Days), and Claire Denis (Chocolat). Simon’s camera rests in the room, observing the applicants and the judges as they talk to one another — and then continuing to observe as the judges talk about the applicants after they leave the room.

Simon taught in the directing department at La Fémis for 10 years, so she knew the place inside and out when she arrived. The Competition is very much about that specific French school, but it’s also about the kinds of “performances” that people put on when they’re trying to impress strangers — whether it’s students trying to charm admissions officers who will help determine their future, or interview subjects trying to look accomplished for a documentarian’s camera.

That exploration of performance is familiar territory for Simon; in addition to her highly respected documentaries (which include 1998’s Récréations and 2003’s Mimi), she also directs actors in fiction films, like 2013’s Gare du Nord. I recently talked to the director in New York, just before The Competition began its theatrical run in late February. We spoke about her time at La Fémis, what French film students want, and why she likes making documentaries. Our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, follows.

Alissa Wilkinson

How did you get into those rooms at La Fémis in the first place? And how did the students and faculty react to having you in the room?

Claire Simon

It was difficult. But I had been in that school for 10 years, and I had the help of the school’s director, who was a big support. We made these protocols that every student had to sign and say it was okay, and that they could withdraw. I told the judges that they could see the film after it was edited and withdraw if they wanted, too.

Alissa Wilkinson

It seems like the process of applying to this program is, itself, performance — the students are performing for the judges, and when your cameras are in the room, they’re performing for you, too. Did you notice that while you were working on the film?

Claire Simon

They’re trying their best. They don’t know what they’re supposed to be, what they’re supposed to say — they’re trying what they think is good. Sometimes they have a much too precise idea of what they should say, and this is when it doesn’t work, mainly. You see that they think they are in front of a mirror, or something like that. Sometimes they are really more simple, though.

Alissa Wilkinson

And the students whom the judges wind up choosing really do say something about the school and how it sees itself. Some critics have said that your film reveals a kind of fundamental conservatism about French cinema as a whole. You’ve been part of the faculty at La Fémis in the past. Does that assessment match up with what you know about the place?


Hopeful students at La Fémis look for their names on the list of successful applicants.

Hopeful students at La Fémis look for their names on the list of successful applicants.
Metrograph Pictures

Claire Simon

Yeah. More or less. I mean, everyone has a big commitment to that responsibility [of protecting French cinema], but then there is the power of the institution and the school. Everyone is frightened to be judged — and especially the judges — not by the camera, but by the example of cinema.

I found that when I was working there: this culture that when you’re walking through the place, all the masters of cinema are watching you. It’s a purgatory. I worked there for 10 years, and I wanted to show a little bit of it.

Alissa Wilkinson

Most Americans don’t know La Fémis by name. But we’re all familiar with the way that institutions accept people into them, and the fictions that happen during that process. American schools are always saying, Oh, it’s all about merit. Then it turns out it’s actually about your parents and how much money they gave to the school.

In the case of La Fémis, what is it that they are looking for, or that makes for an ideal student at the school?

Claire Simon

While I was there, there were very good students — not that they come that often. And they had to fit in the school, which was not always easy.

Alissa Wilkinson

What do you think they want out of film school? Are French film students conditioned to look for something different than American film students? My husband went to film school, and he said that when he was there, everyone’s goal was to direct horror films. People go because they want to make a lot of money, or they want to break into Hollywood. Is it different in France?

Claire Simon

Actually, some years it was exactly that. Everyone wanted to be director. So a lot of applicants would [apply through other departments, like cinematography or acting] to get into the school, and then they would direct. It worked perfectly well. There are famous young directors in France from La Fémis who went out from script department, from image, from production, from sound, but less from the directing department.

Alissa Wilkinson

So they come in through one gate, but with the goal of becoming a director?

Claire Simon

Yeah, and they have more time. They have less pressure. They’re not supposed to be the master of each film.

But it’s not just money they’re looking for. It’s glory.

Alissa Wilkinson

American film culture seems at times quite different from French film culture in that way. What’s valued or considered a success in the two industries — money, film festivals, praise — certainly overlaps, but they’re also different. What do you find the students coming into La Fémis are watching that makes them want to become filmmakers in the first place? Do they grow up steeped in Hollywood films, and then the school is trying to mold them to become something else?

Claire Simon

Yeah, it’s mainly that, very often. There are some who have done films at home with friends and things like that. But, yes, I remember once showing a film, maybe it was in a documentary class or something. It got over, and then they said, “Who is going to see the James Bond tonight?”

For them it is the dream of success — that’s very strong everywhere, the aim of success. Sometimes I feel that the students aren’t interested enough in what cinema is, what you’re doing with the film. It doesn’t matter whether it’s going to be shown in festival — it’s how this film is working. But it takes time, maybe, to be concerned only by the work, and not by the payment. It takes time.


Claire Simon.

Claire Simon’s films haven’t been released theatrically in the US before now, but that’s changing with The Competition.
Metrograph Pictures

Alissa Wilkinson

I feel like it’s a little different in the documentary world, since so few documentarians ever become famous. It’s a totally different world.

Claire Simon

Yeah. And also, then it becomes about the work [itself], about the film, about what’s going on in the film. And that’s exciting.

Alissa Wilkinson

What years did you teach at La Fémis?

Claire Simon

I was there between 2003 and 2014.

Alissa Wilkinson

And you shot The Competition in 2014.

Claire Simon

Yes.

Alissa Wilkinson

During that time, camera phones became more prevalent, right?

Claire Simon

A bit. There were no digital cameras in the school in 2003.

Alissa Wilkinson

It was all film?

Claire Simon

Yes. And I said [to the school administration], “It’s impossible. You have to buy 20 digital cameras cheap, and then good ones. Otherwise, I’ll go away.” It was a fight, an enormous fight.

Alissa Wilkinson

Because they didn’t want… ?

Claire Simon

Because they didn’t want digital; they wanted the best, the best film, the best sound. And I was always saying, “But if [the students] come to do ‘sketches,’ it’s impossible to have them paint with oil. You have to do sketches. I want every student to be able to do sketches.” It was very difficult.

Alissa Wilkinson

You work in both fiction and documentary. What keeps bringing you back to documentary?

Claire Simon

Oh, it’s so exciting. You do research all along during filming. I really like the improvisation, and the fact that making the film is the whole adventure. Even with The Competition, at the beginning, when I went to see the director of the school, I told him, “I’m leaving [the faculty at La Fémis], and I want to make a film.” And he was really happy. He wanted to make a film about the school. After a month, I said, “It’s going to be only the competition.” And he was a bit disappointed. But we agreed, and he liked the film.

The problem with fiction is you have to say everything you’re going to do [to potential funders] in order to get the money. You have to change your mind all the time about what you’re making, because of the money.

The problem is, it’s difficult to make people understand [that a documentary] is cinema, stories, and a new way of telling the world the stories — not just telling information. Documentaries don’t just tell information. This is a really difficult struggle that we have to face.

Alissa Wilkinson

Part of the problem may be that critics tend to write about documentaries only in terms of their content, and not talking about them as films. Which I can imagine would be very frustrating as a filmmaker.

Claire Simon

Yes, of course.

Alissa Wilkinson

I like how you say that we have to think about documentaries as cinema, because that is such a struggle for documentary filmmakers. People will fund a documentary that calls for political action, or something like that. But there’s less funding for movies that just observe a place, or watch people.


The new class at La Fémis poses for the camera.

The new class at La Fémis poses for the camera.
Metrograph Pictures

Claire Simon

Yes. I don’t film wars. I try to do the same thing as [I do in] fiction, but in documentary [form] — to take the same subject in a different way. I think that it’s another way of telling stories.

When I was beginning to make films, it was a great moment in France, but all of the directors were only making films about cinema. The reference was cinema all the time. It was after ’68, in the ’70s, which was a very political time.

I thought it was so boring. Documentary is very vivid. It was a new approach to taking place as a topic, as a way to tell a story, that is different from taking a character or taking an action. This was my idea, you know? It was really important that cinema could tell stories in a way that was more interested in life.

The Competition opened on February 22 and will play in select theaters around the country throughout March and April; the full listing is available on Metrograph Pictures’ website.