The visually splendid School of Life follows an orphan’s immersion into the 1920s French countryside | Movie Review | Chicago Reader

The visually splendid School of Life follows an orphan’s immersion into the 1920s French countryside 

Nicolas Vanier's latest film celebrates the flora and fauna of Sologne, the rural region of north-central France where he grew up.

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School of Life is a good if not exact translation of L'École Buissonnière, the original name of Nicolas Vanier's latest family drama about embracing nature; the French title is an idiomatic expression that means playing truant or skipping school (or work) to revel outdoors. A novelist, environmentalist, and educator widely known overseas for travel books and documentaries about his expeditions to Siberia, Alaska, and the Yukon, Vanier returns to Sologne, the rural region of north-central France where he grew up. Though set in the late 1920s, well before the 56-year-old filmmaker was born, the movie is a semiautobiographical celebration of the land and its flora and fauna and evokes the moral obligation to respect and protect it.

In 1927 Paris, when the French government was actively trying to find new homes for the great many children dislocated by World War I, scrappy 12-year-old orphan Paul (Jean Scandel) is fostered by Celestine (Valérie Karsenti), a servant in a 17th-century chateau, who transports him to the grand estate of the Count de la Fresnaye in the Loire Valley. The youngster, suspicious of any kindness or affection, slowly lets his guard down as he finds an outlet for his intelligence and energy in the company of Celestine's gruff husband, the count's gamekeeper, Borel (Éric Elmosnino), and later in secret excursions with Borel's nemesis, the even crustier poacher Totoche (François Cluzet). Like the kid, Totoche is something of a loner: he lives on a ramshackle houseboat, and his contact with humans is about as furtive as his livelihood. He has a nonchalant view of the law, explaining that the animals and fish he catches aren't confined to any one property—one day they're here, the next day they've traveled elsewhere. The count (François Berléand) takes a laissez-faire attitude toward Totoche's activities, knowing that the man, however deceitful, is basically a good soul.

Paul gradually wears down Totoche's defenses as the elder warms to his precocious new pupil's eagerness to learn about nature and respond to its beauty. If this scenario sounds familiar, that's because it's a staple of international cinema, the most recent example being Taika Waititi's 2016 comic adventure Hunt for the Wilderpeople, about a grumpy old widowed farmer and his journey across the New Zealand landscape with his irrepressible foster son. Vanier's previous movie, Belle & Sebastian (2013), follows a grandfatherly codger in the French Alps, circa 1943, who teaches a seven-year-old orphan the skills and ethics of mountaineering so well that the urchin helps lead Jewish refugees across perilous snowbound ranges to safety in Switzerland.

But perhaps the film that School of Life most recalls is the 1967 hit The Two of Us, Claude Berri's first narrative feature, about how the French countryside literally becomes a lifesaver for an eight-year-old Jewish boy dispatched incognito from Nazi-occupied Paris. Berri based the movie on his own childhood wartime experiences, and Michel Simon enjoyed a late-career comeback as the portly grizzled farmer with openly Petainist views who dotes on his little visitor without suspecting his true identity. In Vanier's film, Totoche is another in the tradition of hearty French paysans (but minus the anti-Semitism). Secrets also surround young Paul's background, though from the moment the youngster sets foot in Sologne his safety is never in doubt.

Vanier's work is just as personal as Berri's, but the difference is that School of Life doesn't traffic in nostalgia. Although he presents several characters fondly, Vanier emphasizes seriousness of purpose over playfulness. Paul, already wise beyond his years because of his previously hard life, is coming of age, and his wonder at his surroundings fuels his deliberations about order and balance in the relations not just between man and nature but between man and man. You can spot the potential beginnings of a future in conservation in Paul's gaze, which the camera follows, tilting upward and dizzily panning in search of birds in the treetops, or tracking deer, boar, and the elusive, majestic 18-point stag the locals have enshrined in myth (Vanier holds postgraduate degrees in agriculture).

Cinematographer Éric Guichard, who shot Belle & Sebastian as well as the stunning Himalaya (directed by Eric Valli and Michel Debats), from 1999, and Seasons (directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud),from 2015, has established himself as a director of nature photography par excellence. The visual splendors in School of Life underscore its message: that stewardship is a responsibility inextricable from a commitment to sustainability. Both Borel and Totoche coach Paul in what is right to hunt and what is not and why. The sole villain is Bertrand (Thomas Durand), the count's spoiled, bored, arrogant son and heir apparent, who takes his bourgeois buddies on shooting excursions to bag herons. He plans to fence off the domain once he controls it, thus curtailing the access of wildlife to habitats of their own choosing.

Publicizing the film a year ago around the time of its French premiere, Vanier created a flap when he claimed in an interview with L'Express that Sologne was being killed off by Parisians who had bought between 50,000 to 100,000 acres in the region, and who, by surrounding their new real estate with grillages (wire fencing), were effectively turning the magnificent forests into private zoos.

As did Claude Berri, Vanier has in his works come back again and again to deeply personal themes. In a 1987 interview with film critic and scholar David Sterritt, Berri stated, "Like Truffaut, I don't think about what is more important, life or movies? I am making only one movie, and that movie is my life." In L'École Buissonnière, Vanier once more returns to his career-long preoccupations with land and family. As he said in that 2017 L'Express article, "With this film, my challenge is showing this region as it is. She is all of my life. I have learned everything from nature."   v

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