Adolescentes represented a real challenge for this reviewer. It’s twenty-five years since I last had any real contact with teenagers on a one to one basis. Could I cope with over two hours of exploring the lives of two girls growing up in Central France from the ages of 13 to 18, especially when I have managed to avoid most of the ‘reality TV’ type programming which this threatened to resemble? Well, I did survive the experience and I hope I can give a critically distanced appraisal of the film which I enjoyed very much in parts even if some aspects seemed questionable.
The film is described as a ‘documentary’ and in the sense that it records moments in the lives of the two selected teenagers it is certainly a documentary record. On the other hand, a link to the Griersonian definition of ‘a creative treatment of actuality’ seems a little more doubtful. The reality TV mode is usually developed towards an entertainment function in which we are asked to become involved in narratives about winners and losers. That isn’t the case here even if the film is inevitably ‘narrativised’ by the selection of ‘moments’ when judgements are made. Director Sébastien Lifshitz made some interesting decisions such as opting for a CinemaScope ratio and commissioning music from Claire Denis collaborators Tindersticks which help the film to feel more like a fiction feature. The overall format is not original and is perhaps best known via the television films of the ‘Up‘ series in which cameras have revisited a group of characters every seven years since 1963. However, that series is much more obviously a long term project in which the subjects speak to camera and respond to questions. Lifshitz simply ‘observed’ his two participants during short periods of two or three days selected to cover the main aspects of their lives over five years.
The two subjects of the documentary are Anaïs and Emma, best friends attending the same middle school in the small city of Brive in South Central France, with Limoges as the nearest major centre. Lifshitz wanted to find a community outside Paris and he suggests that Brive was interesting partly because of its distinct seasons – hot summers and cold winters. Originally he had thought of following a boy but soon became convinced that a girl would be more interesting because, as many teachers and others told him, girls in France have changed much more in the last fifteen years. He actually found two girls in the same school. He did worry that it might not be appropriate for a man to follow the lives of teenage girls so closely but they and, surprisingly perhaps, their parents seemed happy to participate – more on this later. The film covers the years 2013 to 2018 and includes some reactions to the major events in France during the period (including the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan and the election of President Macron). The girls were born in 2000 so they represent the new generation of the 21st century.
Shifitz is concerned to ‘show and not tell’, so for those of us outside France, aspects of the French education system do need a little explanation. As far as I can work out, Anaïs and Emma attend the same middle school but then make different choices at 15 which mean they attend different high schools and will make different decisions again after taking the baccalauréat at 18. Anaïs is from a working-class family. She has a difficult family life because her mother is hospitalised a couple of times and she has two brothers, one of whom needs care. She has some issues with her weight but she’s an attractive and sociable young woman who works hard when she wants to and does well in her vocational bac (known as a CAP or Certificat d’aptitude professionnelle). Emma is more conventionally attractive and comes from a wealthier, professional family. Her mother is a tax inspector and her father is a sales executive who seems to travel a great deal. Emma has a difficult relationship with her mother and that may be one reason she lacks self-confidence. She opts for a ‘professional bac‘, hoping for a place in a film school – previously she thought about becoming a singer. Don’t leap to any conclusions about the choices the girls make. As a teacher of vocational education I was pleased by the decision Anaïs made and how she handled herself in high school. I don’t think my outline sketch ‘spoils’ the documentary narrative. There are many other incidents and narrative subtexts in the film and I certainly found it an engaging watch.
The questions that arise are, not surprisingly, about some of the more intimate situations into which the camera intrudes. There are two specific questions. The first is about the conversations between the two girls and with their peers (the other girls). They talk about how they are approaching losing their virginity and, since they spend summers by the pool in their bikinis they talk about their bodies. In the Press Notes Sébastien Lifshitz says that at first he covered the girls’ interactions mainly in long shots but later he felt that he could use a long lens to get much closer to his subjects – with their permission. This means that as well as close-ups of their heads and shoulders we also have close-up images of thighs when the girls discuss their ‘stretch marks’ from their rapid growth as teenagers. It did make me wonder how the girls would respond when they saw these shots on a cinema screen. Lifshitz does tell us that they first giggled at seeing themselves but then he said:
I believe that the film was for them a cold revealing mirror which made them realise things about themselves. But the most important thing for me was that they recognised themselves in it. Adolescence is a continent both dark and sunny. (My approximate translation of the original French.)
He also reveals that Emma spoke about seeing herself arguing with her mother and wondered if she (Emma) was really like that. This leads me to my second question which is really at the root of my objection to much of the ‘reality TV’ type of narrative. I feel uncomfortable commenting on how the parents behave in this film and I do wonder how Lifshitz made decisions about what to include. I also wonder how the parents themselves came to agree to allow his camera in to the arguments they had with their children. We all tend to regret the way we behave in arguments sometimes but we don’t then get to see ourselves arguing on a cinema screen. Lifshitz states elsewhere in the Press Notes that of course he is aware of the camera becoming an instrument that mediates behaviour but then says that the girls in particular seemed to forget about it completely. As a spectator it did seem to me that scenes flowed so naturally that it was easy to feel that I was watching a fiction performed by non-professionals who had been well briefed. The teachers in the classrooms are not named so I do feel able to say that for all its good qualities, I do feel that the school scenes demonstrate the conservative/traditional pedagogy I’ve seen in other French films set in schools. It’s all ‘talk and chalk’ with students in rows of desks and teachers standing at the front. Do they ever try group work or a more democratic open discussion arena? Mind you we may have lost all those progressive ideas in English education after Michael Gove and his vandals’ attacks on the methods I and my colleagues used to use.
I’m certainly glad I watched Adolescentes. I’m still not sure about the ethics of the film but these seemed like two sensible young women and I hope they have succeeded in their further studies even in the face of the current pandemic. The narrative ends in Autumn 2018. The film is technically very good with camerawork by Paul Guilhaume and Antoine Parouty and editing by Tina Baz providing exactly what is needed by Sébastien Lifshitz. I didn’t really notice the music but in this context I think that means it worked in harmony with the other elements. Adolescentes is still streaming as part of My French Film Festival. Here is the trailer (no subtitles) from Unifrance.