Le Brio by Yvan Attal
Daniel Auteuil is one of the sacred monsters of French and International Cinema, with historical roles like Ugolin in the incredible, astounding, mesmerizing, radiant and glorious Jean de Florette.
Alas, the role he has in Le Brio, that of professor Pierre Mazzard, although difficult, is far from the thick, backward, greedy, and amusing and in love peasant from one of the classics of world cinema and the other part in the series:
Manon of the Springs
Pierre Mazzard seems to be the antihero of the film, at least for good parts, starting with the…beginning, where he confronts a late student, who is somewhat to blame for her initial lack of reaction, when instead of excusing herself she shows a rather crass rudeness answering with “what?” when the proper response would have been an apology for disturbing a few hundred people.
The heroine is Neila Salah portrayed by Camelia Jordana and to begin with, she is not too endearing- perhaps for some segments of the audience- for on your first day at university, one could expect you to arrive on time, especially when not doing it means interrupting learning for so many students, many if not most of who would surely be more interested than you are in the studies.
Therefore, the professor has a point when challenging this late apparition, especially given her apparent lack of comprehension and remorse for being a nuisance- if not an extraordinarily serious one-and the teacher laments this lack of interest and starts on a controversial path.
Immediately, other students express their solidarity with Neila, for this is meant to be a challenging, provocative, intelligent script, which one the one hand would stigmatize racism, but also raise some issues for the “other side” and perhaps insinuate that we could at the very least talk about “political correctness” and the effects of positive discrimination and clichés.
Besides, the professor of the Assas University is very good at winning arguments, loves to speak his mind and frequently, if not always, revels in creating controversy and is a master at debating, even if this time he is facing serious accusations and…at least four Facebook pages asking that he would be demoted or fired even.
The dean of the University has to take action and asks the accused to act in order to re-establish a clean reputation, which in this case means to take the young woman into training and prove he is not a racist, a misogynist or both, but a talented educator who has so much to give.
It is not easy and there are many moments when one could understand that complexity of characters is what makes a film worth watching, we all have dark sides, make mistakes and yet, the personages become at various times rather obnoxious and finally the motion picture loses in value and likeability.
Mazzard is good as a trainer and has a lot to teach, but his outbursts, character, provocations and potential misanthropist behavior- he may well be not a racist, but a man who dislikes other people in equal manner- make hi unlikable and the public may choose to lose interest in his shenanigans.
When compared with other famous teachers – Michael Caine in the charming, pleasant, amusing Educating Rita or Rex Harrison in the resplendent, radiant My Fair Lady- based on the ancient myth of Pygmalion, of the Greek sculptor who became enamored with the statue he had created and asked the Gods to give it life- Pierre Mazzard seems to lack compassion, a more endearing type of humor.
As for Neila Salah, she may represent the epitome of a new, liberated generation, more interested in plain truth and less in convoluted, false but polite conversation and respect for rules – here one could think of William Golding, who spoke about his chef d’oeuvre Lord of the Flies and said that the crucial, paramount message of the classic is that “if you have no rules, you have Nothing”
Alas, some in the audience may find this other main character just as unpleasant- for many scenes- and anyway not likeable enough when she shows courage, perseverance, perspective, social intelligence, kindness, gratitude, determination, prudence, wisdom, for all these are shadowed by bouts of reckless attitudes, too much aggresivity, and lack of sensitivity.
Plus, there are moments which are supposed to be both funny and interesting- and maybe they are for some viewers- but they can also appear bizarre, out of place and even somewhat embarrassing- for instance, when the professor takes his private pupil to the French Metro and she has to address a public of strangers with lines from a famous historical speech, dated to the Roman times.
This exercise is repeated, and when the woman starts laughing because the second time she has to compete with a duo of musicians, trying to use their talent to make some money, the professor takes over, climbs a chair and gets the attention of the passengers and the completion, instead of getting angry and vocal at losing their subsistence, they offer musical background.
It does not look credible
There are merits and the film starts with a very sophisticated, provocative, admirable philosophical conversation, there are many vital issues- some of them mentioned in passing: racism, bigotry, honesty, and freedom of speech, maybe mysoginism, education and more.
In addition, the lessons offered by Professor Mazzard can indeed be very useful, based as they are on Schopenhauer and his 38 Stratagems to Win an Argument:
“The Extension (Dana's Law)
Interrupt, Break, Divert the Dispute
Generalize Your Opponent's Specific Statements
Conceal Your Game
Become Personal, Insulting, Rude
Yield Admissions Through Questions and more”