An acerbic, comic light is cast over the education system in Eric Rohmer’s 1958 short film. It’s a sharp arrow that strikes at the heart of all that’s rotten about unimaginative teaching, and is as disturbingly relevant to the present day as it is to post-war France.
In short, there are three bored characters – ‘Madame’ (Stella Dassas), her young son Jean-Christophe (Alain Deirieu), and the personal tutor, Véronique (Nicole Berger).
Madame doesn’t want to help her son. Sure, she has affection for Jean-Christophe (we do see her ruffle his hair, rather like a confectioner would a small boy who has just purchased a lollipop). Madame prefers to prop up a late 1950s France with bourgeois appearances: a squeaky-clean apartment and the insistence of good behaviour. ‘Don’t be afraid to be strict,’ she quips to Veronique, ‘The older he gets, the sillier he is.’
And then mother click-clacks out of the apartment …
Véronique is uninspired by the flat curriculum of fractions and essay structures. Her short temper and lack of patience matches Jean-Christophe’s indifference and cheekiness. ‘You’re great at useless things,’ she says with prettiness and boredom. Véronique could be sleepwalking through the whole lesson. Her turn is comic and she comes across as little more intelligent than her student.
We want to judge the lesson and trash it as a futile exercise in dull education. And this is exactly what Rohmer and producer Claude Chabrol want us to do. Rohmer was a school-teacher before he was a film-maker, and it is clear Véronique is a teacher disillusioned with a prescriptive system that insists on a two page essay, when just two lines, as Jean-Christophe impishly suggests, is enough. ‘Less is more,’ certainly; and is a maxim Rohmer applied beautifully to his narrative structures throughout his filmmaking career.
Chabrol, we assume, assured his trademark mischievous and slightly macabre humour in Véronique et son Cancre. It would have been a pleasure to be privy to his conversations with Rohmer during their production meetings. In the parlour, where the lesson takes place, are two squeaky toys: a bear and a lamb. They are incongruous with the stuffy interior, and suggest the bourgeois world is as childish, if not more, than Jean-Christophe himself.
Jean-Christophe is not a dunce, he is bored. He uses humour to deflect Véronique’s comments. He charms, he mocks and he fidgets. But really he wants to exist in a world where his imagination is his teacher. His teacher and his mother are the squeaking toys, while he rests in the imagined world that Rohmer and Chabrol no doubt preferred.
When Jean-Christophe finally gets rid of Véronique (‘my mum says you shouldn’t stay more than an hour.’ Unsurprisingly, she leaves immediately), Jean-Christophe retreats to the parlour and lies down on his tummy. He stretches his arms out wide, making the shape of an ice-skater. It’s also the wide-shape of the imagination, and one that Chabrol and Rohmer used to broaden our perception of the world with cinema.
Eric Rohmer (1958) Produced by Claude Chabrol