'Le Brio' Interrogates Assimilation as France's 'Dead Poets Society'


For a country that does not take official statistics on race and ethnicity, France is especially concerned as of late with race relations and, perhaps more importantly for The Republic, assimilation. Le Brio, directed by Yvan Attal, squishes, flattens, and spins what initially appears to be a rags-to-riches story, like a pizza, whose main ingredients are an ambitious girl from the disadvantaged projects of Créteil and a heavy dose of French acting legend Daniel Auteuil, playing a venerated professor in the prestigious Panthéon-Assas University in Paris.

At the crux of Le Brio is the question of assimilation—specifically whether the assimilation of our heroine, Neïla Salah (Camélia Jordana), is in her best interests or those of the elites who can justify their old ways with a Cinderella story.

As a first-year pre-law student—in France pre-law is an actual course of study rather than an empty utilitarian cop-out for a liberal arts education—Neïla commutes from the southeastern suburb of Créteil, a working class town with scores of ugly apartment towers but easy access to the 8 line of the metro. Yet the 8 line coming from outside the city is less convenient than other commutes, forcing Neïla to arrive late to her first course at the university, taught by Monsieur Pierre Mazard (Auteuil). Mazard is a stickler for the rules, and, like many from his golden generation, a bit racist too.

Implying that arriving late is typical of first year students, Mazard’s opening comment to Neïla in front of hundreds of students in a lecture hall is perceived by the Gen Z crowd as a flagrant micro-aggression. Mazard proceeds to only dig himself a deeper hole, subsequently going viral for his racially tinged tirade and landing himself in front of a disciplinary board.

Prior to being disciplined, the president of the school cuts a deal with Mazard: if he visibly mentors the aggressed Neïla, the gatekeepers will cut him some slack and let him retain his tenure after the petitions calling for his ouster subside. The ultimate goal is to coach her to win a national debate tournament in which Aassas reigns perennial—a potential first victory for a woman of color in France that could be pyrrhic given the motivations behind it.

What follows could have lazily been done as a mélange of Rocky, Stand and Deliver, and the Dead Poets Society. Luckily for viewers, however, Auteuil delivers a career performance that is almost overshadowed by that of Jordana (though it’s not very believable to the audience that she was born in 1997). From reciting “Friends, Romans, countrymen” in French on the metro to attempting to enunciate with a pen between her teeth, Neïla flourishes under Mazard’s unconventional tactics and penchant for a loquaciously esoteric vocabulary. Like a March Madness underdog, she begins to roll through the competition in the tournament, from Paris to Lille to Nantes to Bordeaux.

Yet her rhetorical success and assimilation into French high society come at a cost. She grows apart from her Uber-driver boyfriend in Créteil, Mounir (Yasin Houicha), and a high-cheekboned white fellow at school hints that she’s a pawn in Mazare and the president’s scheme.

Attal decides to take a chronological jump at the end of the film that may leave some perplexed. He seems to hint that Neïla’s unique conception of being French allows her to help out fellow disadvantaged youth in the projects, but leaves open the possibility that assimilating to typical Frenchness may not be the answer. He also leaves open the question of whether Auteuil’s character is simply a racist bastard who did some good or a complex old dog who may be able to learn some new tricks. Were the audience not to know where Neïla ends up after the tournament, Le Brio could be either a very banal or very depressing film, but instead it leaves some room for rumination and a happy ending.

The racial politics of this film may have been intended to be universal—like many French inventions—but they can only really be understood in the context of a French society that considers itself post-racial. Perhaps some elements would strike Americans literate in social justice as “problematic,” but this reaction points to a linguistic difference that is revelatory of a broader cultural difference between the two countries.

In French, a “problématique” is a question to be wrestled with through conflicting arguments—literally a thesis, antithesis, and a subsequent synthesis. In modern English parlance, at least among the Left in America, something being “problematic” simply means it’s morally wrong, no debate required. While France may not have any claims to superiority of America in terms of race relations, this approach is far more enriching in the realm of contemplation, and just maybe in practice, too.  

Jake Lahut