L'École buissonnière (The School of Life) | Kilburnlad | Film | Reviews


L'École buissonnière (The School of Life)

L'École buissonnière

A delightful French comedy-drama set in the forests of Solonge, where the director Nicolas Vanier grew up on a family farm. This film is a treat for anybody who enjoys nature in addition to telling a heart-warming story.

The film begins in 1927 Paris, where after the war there are a lot of orphans. A woman named Célestine arrives at an orphanage where she is asked if she would take a young boy named Paul, who was originally from the area in Solonge where she lives. She is reluctant, and we detect that this boy features in her past, although we do not learn any more at this stage. She is introduced to Paul, and seeing the conditions in the orphanage, and how he is treated, her compassion overrules her reticence.

When they arrive back at Sologne we see that Célestine is in service to the local Count. Her husband, Borel, is the gamekeeper on the Count's estate. She introduces Paul as her cousin's son, which tells us that his real identity is best kept secret. He isn't there long before he learns of Totoche, the local poacher, characterised superbly by François Cluzet. Borel's main objective in life is to entrap Totoche in the act, this being all the more amusing since Totoche has a thing going with Célestine, who acts as an advanced warning of Borel's plans. Initially Totache wants nothing to do with Paul, but after Paul rescue's his dog from the river, the two gradually become friends, with Paul lapping up Totoche's immense knowledge of the life of the forest. As a drama this film could easily double as a nature documentary.

We learn more about the Count as things progress. In the past he lost his daughter and has never really recovered from this. His son, meanwhile, is a playboy who doesn't work and, we detect, is far from meeting his father's expectations. The Count also shows some unexpected traits, such as permitting a group of gypsies to set up camp on his land, much to the annoyance of Totoche. And when the Count meets Totoche in the forest, knowing full well he is a poacher, he lightly jokes about reporting him for collecting mushrooms, whereupon Totoche jokes back, saying there was more freedom under the kings of France. The Count also finds it amusing that Totoche makes omelettes for Célestine; the poacher cooking for the gamekeeper's wife!

When the Count accidentally encounters Paul wondering around inside the manor, he is at first displeased, but later confides in Célestine that he feels he knows the boy. From then on the Count takes a greater interest in Paul, while at the same time Paul is learning more and more from Totoche.

Paul shows a great interest in the stags' head trophies displayed in the manor, and while in the forest spots a large stag that he says had more than 16 tines on its horns, making it a monarch. Totoche either doesn't believe him, or is trying to stop him talking about the animal, for its own protection. However, Paul's teacher, who's also a bit of a nature lover, confirms that this stag does indeed visit the forest. It is the stag that the Count has been hunting all his life and, when he eventually learns of its presence, he quickly organises a hunt, which is superbly filmed.

In a number of ways the outcome of the hunt shapes what then happens, and while you may already have put two and two together with respect to Paul, the fact that the ending is somewhat telegraphed during the film in no way detracts from what is a beautifully crafted story. You will not be surprised to learn that the director was also responsible for feature length film of Belle & Sebastian.

In case you're wondering, the French title apparently translates as truancy. Faire l'école buissonnière is to play truant. This is a rare case, therefore, where I think the English title is perhaps more apt.

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