News  ·  03 | 08 | 2023

La Voie Royale

A decision on what to devote or sacrifice in pursuit of your dreams. But why those dreams?

© Emmanuelle Firman

For his third feature film, Swiss director Frédéric Mermoud, whose debut Complices screened in competition in Locarno in 2009, has chosen the central region of France, specifically Lyon, and a very precise French context in which he places his young protagonist, Sophie.

This new film, La Voie Royale, is the chance to explore the two or even three years some students choose to either devote or sacrifice in the pursuit of their dreams. But why those dreams? That question haunts the film up to the grand final oral exam.

The film opens at a steady pace, as Sophie (Suzanne Jouannet, who was noticed in Les Choses humaines by Yvan Attal) goes almost seamlessly and with the same ease from the pigs' trough to the math equation in high school, then to the subsidy file from her parents' farm in the evening. She rocks in her blue Adidas sweatshirt with pink stripes. She must consider her choices after high school.

A first Pygmalion, her teacher, suggests that she dreams by telling her about the preparatory classes leading to the big schools. “It’s fine with me,” she replies simply, having only a vague idea of what that entails but loving the possibilities it represents. Her mother, the wonderful Marilyne Canto, supports her at the start of the school year, moved and tenderly impressed by this change of scale.

Sophie quickly becomes friends with the one who is akin to her roommate, the brilliant Diane (Marie Colomb). The film is peppered with the vocabulary of the grandes écoles, so the students are "moles", "hazes" or "sup" for those in the first year, "spé" for those in the second. The royal road of the title is, paradoxically, that of meritocracy and not monarchy. The students are selected for their academic excellence and emulated by a teaching that combines quantity (seventy hours of study per week) and high standards, with an intensity that borders on ambivalence: is the objective to break the students by humiliating them or to make a Darwinian natural selection, as suggested by one of the students in front of the physics teacher (the superb Maud Wyler)?

In these ‘preparatory classes’ sexist jokes run amuck, which are played off by our two protagonists who return the jibes without, it seems, any clash. More sensitive are those linked to social class, with scholarship holders named and singled out from the first presentation meeting, and the first clash between Diane and Sophie concerns the Yellow Vests movement, of which Sophie's brother is a member, having taken over the parents’ farm. Even if the Papin sisters are classy in Genet’s play, the preparatory classes remind us that graduates of X (Polytechnique) represent power and money in France. And these are white and very white in France, as white as the underpants that a student proudly displays and the absolute absence of even a swarthy face. It is only on the threshold of X, the military school, that the first character with darker skin appears. We then want to help our heroine do what she believes in: to change the world.


Mathilde Henrot