Premières solitudes

 (Claire Simon, France, 2018) 100 minutes


Director: Claire Simon
Producers: Sophie Dulac, Michel Zana
Cinematography: Claire Simon
Editors: Luc Forveille,
  Léa Masson, Claire Simon
Sound: Fabien Adelin, Virgile van Ginneken

Reviews and notes

2018 Berlin, Hong Kong

For Claire Simon’s new documentary, Young Solitude, in which she observes and listens to ten students (eight girls and two boys) in a suburban high school near Paris, the director takes an exceptionally immersive approach: she does her own camerawork and recruits some of the participating students to record sound. The film shows the teen-agers (in the French equivalent of the eleventh grade) speaking to one another with a revelatory frankness about relationships — especially with their parents. With a blend of self-aware sociological context and psychological insight, the ethnically diverse group of students, almost all of whose parents have divorced or are otherwise separated, lay bare the wounds they’ve suffered from their parents’ remoteness, distraction, or personal troubles – and the effect of their family lives on their own relationships and future plans. Simon elicits discussions of a novelistic depth; her assertive images give the students’ words physical impact.
- Richard Brody, New Yorker.

A fly-on-the-wall portrait of French youth, Young Solitude (Premieres solitudes) gets about as close to its teenage subjects as possible, yet allows them to open up as if the camera weren’t even there. That’s the main takeaway from documentarian Claire Simon’s latest feature, which lets the viewer sit in on conversations among different students at the Lycee Romain Rolland in Ivry-sur-Seine, located just south of Paris.

Although Young Solitude chronicles the dog days that many adolescents experience, such a title can be deceiving for a film that ultimately shows how kids will stick together to confront pain and isolation. They are, in fact, very from from being alone, and Simon — who previously captured French school life in her documentaries Recreations and The Graduation — has an intimate approach that focuses mostly on their relationships, showing how they tell their stories to each other. After a premiere in Berlin, the film could see some pubcaster play and additional fest bids.

The documentarian must have spent considerable time with these kids before filming them, resulting in a process that has her hovering very close to their faces with the camera yet remaining altogether invisible. If they can seem reticent at times to talk about their lives, they are easily coaxed on by their classmates — and, in one case, by a school nurse — as they discuss their difficult upbringings and overall sense of fear about what’s to come. “I know who I want to be, but I don’t know who I’ll be,” one girl says early on, summing up a feeling that lingers throughout the rest of the movie.

With many of them hailing from working-class backgrounds — several are the children of first-generation immigrants — we see how troubled they can be by early trauma (one girl talks about her harrowing adoption story in Nigeria) or recent divorces (one of which forces a girl to move out of her much preferred Paris apartment), making it hard for them to approach the future with confidence. The atmosphere is fairly gloomy (“There’s a big group depression in the class,” explains another student), although the kids manage to lift their spirits through camaraderie.

There’s nothing altogether new or original about Young Solitude, nor does Simon place these kids’ lives in any sort of greater context. It would have been interesting, for instance, to have a more rounded portrait of the school and its specific suburban environment, rather than what seems like a prolonged discussion among friends. Still, the director does get to the heart of a certain type of adolescent angst, revealing how it’s much better to open up about one’s problems than keep them contained. In that sense, her movie functions as a form of cinematic group therapy, and by the closing credits we can only hope that some of these kids have been put on the right track.
- Jordan Mintzer, The Hollywood Reporter, 17 February 2018.

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