Cursed with a résumé free of sensational style and thematic homogeneity, Bertrand Tavernier may be among movie culture’s consummate undersung masters—or may have recently become so, with a bruising camera eloquence and heart-throttling naturalism arrived at only in the last decade, with L.627, L’Appât, Capitaine Conan, and now It All Starts Today. Always a serious filmmaking intelligence (he is perhaps second only to Scorsese in the vastness of his inner archives), Tavernier never mistakes sentiment for character, or melodrama for reality—and his topicality never cloys.
It All Starts Today (Ça Commence Aujourd’hui) is certainly packed with explosives—it’s a rambunctious, maddened portrait of a kindergarten principal (Philippe Torreton) trying to do right by his students in a small French town fraught with systemic poverty, unemployment, and abuse. But look how Tavernier shoots it: His roving camera is, terrifyingly, often a what’s-that step away from the action, and approaches it in a panicked run (along with the principal). Just a handful of such moments gives the movie a ballistic urgency, so that every day at pickup and drop-off we expect the volcano to blow.
It blows, but without a sound. Torreton is his own kind of volcano; forever erupting in Capitaine Conan, here he boils, his violence successfully lidded by an impeccable professionalism. Focused on Torreton’s Daniel—as at ease with the children as he is responsibly confrontational with parents and social service workers—the movie is essentially didactic, down to its repetitive episodism. (The kids, surprisingly, are given short shrift, despite the Truffaut-esque coda.) The script, cowritten with Tavernier’s daughter, Tiffany, and longtime teacher Dominique Sampiero, has little momentum of its own, and its shapelessness is nearly camouflaged by the director’s prowling presence. There are purposefully joyful interludes, but Tavernier supplies the sense of secret doom it’s hard not to get about some children—what do you do when parents neglect their kids? Dynamic but preachy (there are plenty of free-form Loachian policy discussions, and many in the cast are actual teachers), It All Starts Today has no answers where there aren’t any, and that’s the final source of its outrage.
Let’s reserve outrage enough for Don Thompson’s Clouds, which is like getting a tooth drilled and all you can see is ceiling. A clotted, student-filmish death march that appears to have been acted and directed under a particularly portentous lake, Clouds follows around a gloomy physics teacher (Michael Patrick Gaffney) who goes on a moody sabbatical to a moody seaside resort to moodily work on his “theory,” and thereby learn that life is more than high math. At least he seems to learn something; Gaffney has the demeanor of a mud puddle, and Thompson’s script should have biohazard warnings on it. (Typical exchange: “What do you mean?” “I mean exactly what I said.” “What exactly did you say?” “Maybe I didn’t say anything, exactly. . . . “) A Jarmusch movie if Jarmusch had been born with a skull full of liquid and nerve bundles instead of a brain, Clouds has nice, pearly, black-and-white cinematography, but it also has the shocking temerity to run over 100 minutes. Sweet air is required.