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The apprentice is Matthieu Bulle, a tall, gangly 15-year-old boy in an agricultural high school with divorced parents who divides his classes half-time apprenticing with a dairy farmer named Paul Barbier, in the Haut-Doubs region of France, close to the Swiss border. The boy learns, and he and Paul bond.
This film reminded me of Nicolas Philibert's superb 2002 documentary To Be and To Have, and also of a significant passage of my own early life. Like Philibert's film, Collardey's is about French education in a rural farming area (mostly dairy) up near the French Alps. Like this boy Matthieu Bulle, I had a kind of apprenticeship in my teens that supplied me with a surrogate much needed second father.
I also thought of the Dardenne brothers' powerful The Son/Le fils (also 2002), about another, far more intense (and more fictional) apprenticeship. These are all variations in documentary technique. The Italian neorealists used "real" people as actors. The Dardennes have done that, in part--though Olivier Gourmet and Jérémie Renier are certainly professional actors, of the first order.
Collardey's way of working was marked by a certain stateliness and beauty. He used 35 mm. cameras that required some formal setup time--not tiny DV ones. His shots are sequential and carefully chosen. The images are beautiful, sharp, spacious at times, full of light and air. "I have been greatly influenced by Courbet," he said in an interview with Claire Vassé, "who, incidentally, was born in Ormans, the town I live in. Courbet's revolution consisted in dedicating large formats, until then reserved for religious scenes, to more trivial scenes featuring peasants... As a rule, 35 mm. reels are only for actual film actors; but I use them to film Matthieu, Martine (the boy's mother--CK) and Paul, and film the way they speak. I felt like making them full-fledged film characters." By the way, apropos of Courbet, Matthieu in talking to classmates defines himself as a "paysan," a peasant, rather than a "cultivateur." This boy and his classmates don't seem to want to be modern agriculturalists "running" a farm.
Is this a pure "film," or a documentary? Isn't this distinction artificial? The people and events are "real." Collardey selected Paul, a man who has had apprentices before, and seemed like a nice man who doesn't exploit them. When the director was looking for a boy for his film Matthieu, without being chosen by the principal, came knocking on his door, told an emotional story, and his freshness and volatility won him the "part." Collardey films him giving a class presentation, drinking, dancing, swimming, roughhousing in the locker room with his classmates, meeting once with his absent dad, taking finals, and arguing more than once with his mom. But his main interest was Matthieu's interactions with Paul as he helps herd the cows, cuts wood, shares a secret, sleds and trades snowballs, or gets dressed down by Martine for cleaning out cobwebs when he should have been helping her milk the cows. In several memorable solo moments, Matthieu struggles with guitar chords and gives himself up to a song, singing at the top of his lungs off key with total abandon, wearing headphones when Paul's away as he sweeps out the stable.
Collardey set up that dressing-down, suggested the time for it and set up the shot. But he knew it was going to come.
I think what makes this a fine film is the other dimensions provided by the spontaneity of the boys' scenes as they grab-ass in the shower, pop beer caps and sing a drinking song; when Matthieu pleads with his girlfriend, dances with her and kisses her; or speculates with his best friend about sex and women's bodies when they're both standing immersed at the edge of the swimming pool. To have kept it this natural in all these different setting of a young boy's life and never faltered from the handsome 35 mm. images is a technical and aesthetic accomplishment that is also an act of patience, humanism, and sympathy. It reaches its quiet emotional peak when Paul admits to Matthieu he lost a son at an early age and has never gotten over it. He's a tight-lipped countryman and doesn't have to say, as my teacher did to me, that Matthieu is the son he might have had.
Collardey grew up on a farm too, and also lost his father when he was 13 and felt the lack Matthieu suffers because he's given up on his dad and rarely sees him. Collardey's not approaching as a neutral observer. Nor can you. If you find the idea of toiling on a small farm, or nurturing a teenager with some emotional issues and a squeaky voice unappealing, forget it. But this won the Critics Week prize in Venice. Another fine documentary about rural life not shown here, Raymond Dupeyron's Vie moderne, won the prestigious Louis-Delluc Prize, for which The Apprentice/L'Apprenti as well as Cantet's The Class, Desplechin's A Chrismas Tale and Assayas' Summer Hours were finalists. Previous Louis-Delluc winners were Secret of the Grain the year before; To Be and To Have in 2002. So, tough competition, and The Apprentice isn't quite at the the level of care and intensity of To Be and To Have. But it won the Louis Dellac Best First Film prize. And t's beautiful work, its marriage of humble subject matter and visual grandeur quite special, and one should not be distracted by the boy's adolescent stumbles and the alleged "reality-TV" moments from recognizing this Femis graduate's demonstrated humanity and command of a medium that he transcends and redefines in ways that are both classic and contemporary.
Released December 3, 2008 in France. Part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York, March 2008.
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