Wow – this is a beautiful film. Lyrical in its photography, gentle in its music and comic and sad and lovely in its story. Old Jack loved it. It’s a Sunday afternoon film, an All Creatures Great and Small for the 21st century. And there are any number of grumpy-funny Siegfrieds, warm Helens and one – in the heart of boyhood – innocent James. Only this is set in France – Sologne – in the 1920s and has nothing to do with vets.
The School of Life (Amazon Prime, friends; or look for a cinema if you’re in France) is about an orphan boy taken from Paris to live on a country estate with a maid and her gamekeeper husband. Out in the stunning countryside, all forests and rivers and elegant shots of it all, he is befriended by an old poacher, a gypsy girl and – eventually – the old Count himself. Young Paul is played with blue-eyed impishness by Jean Scandel. He is protected by a sympathetic director (Nicolas Vanier) and cast of old hands who make for a disparate, warm-hearted, quarrelsome family; but have no doubt young Mr Scandel gives a heartening, boyish performance that centres the film.
The TV room laughed gently at the adventures of Paul, but loved the insights into the over-50s. François Cluzet is marvellous as the cunning old poacher, Totoche. From his tricksy boots with revolving soles to his traps for fish and love of freedom, he is entertaining and kind. He teaches the boy his tricks and the magic of the estate: hunting and hiding and respecting the mythical stag that may or may not visit each year. The relationship between the two is perfect: everything you could have wanted as a boy trapped in bucolic paradise.
Totoche has a natural rivalry with the gamekeeper, Borel, played with Gallic timing and mighty moustache by Éric Elmosnino. The battle between the two is a gentle delight. Old Jack never left Totoche’s side, as the story intended, but had a sneaking sympathy for poor Borel by the end. The world was out to frustrate his ambitions. Even Célestine, his wife and the mother of the story, toyed with him to get Paul out and about and learning about the world. Valérie Karsenti is lovely, watching out for the boy, marshalling the backstory and loving and leading the old men. For in this world, the old men are vibrant and silly.
And…oh, it’s just great. The photography makes sure every moment is gorgeous. The countryside of Sologne shines with life and an old magic that demands respect. The people – from dancing gypsy girls to a fading Count (François Berléand as le Comte de Fresnaye) – get a similar shine. Bright eyes peer through bracken; dark, soft eyes look sympathetically at those caught by life’s cruelties or their own character faults. The whole thing is a chocolate box of loveliness. Éric Guichard, the cinematographer, brings thirty years of expertise to the fore and should be cloned.
There is a plot. Who is Paul? Why did Célestine bring him here? Who was Matildhe? How can the Count’s ghastly son be stopped from ruining this safe, warm world? Old Jack found himself yearning for the obvious to play out. And it did and was utterly satisfying because of it. By the end, I didn’t particularly want there to be a point beyond the value of loving what the world could be if you don’t put up fences. Again, the film obliged.
Bask in L’école buisonnièrre as soon as you can. Your soul needs it.