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‘Smart Ass’ peeks at sordid underbelly of French ‘Ivy League’

Wild Bunch

As with food trucks and Converse, filmmaking trends from the US invariably land in France a few years late. But whereas the French can concoct a pretty tasty burger and look chic wearing almost anything, movies are another matter.


The French-made action thrillers, “rom-coms” and chick flicks that have flooded cinemas here recently have been, almost without exception, dreadful: drably made retreads of what are usually anemic and unimaginative pictures to begin with.

Now another American sub-genre, the college film, arrives on French screens in the form of Kim Chapiron’s “Smart Ass” (“La Crème de la crème” is the French title), which follows three students at a top Paris business school (based on the prestigious HEC) as they work hard, party harder and somehow find the time to run an elaborate prostitution ring.

From microeconomics to Sex Trade 101

The package is alluring: French 20-year-olds appear to go wild with a kind of tortured sophistication, a “Dangerous Liaisons”-style decadence – a certain, yes, je ne sais quoi – that their counterparts across the Atlantic, with their keg stands and Colgate smiles, can’t imitate.

Early scenes, in which the Tunisian Jaffar (Karim Ait M’hand), the lesbian Kelly (Alice Isaaz) and the chubby, frizzy-haired Jewish Dan (Thomas Blumenthal) bond over feeling excluded by their blue-blooded peers, hint at a satire of a rigidly stratified Gallic society ruled by a homogeneous class of elites.

Yet unlike other recent French films that pondered the country’s much-documented current “malaise” with a sense of risk or purpose, “Smart Ass” has little on its mind.

As the marginalised main characters go into business with Louis (Jean-Baptiste Lafarge), a classmate with killer cheekbones, a Cheshire grin and the nonchalant elegance of old money, the film abandons social critique for campus clichés. Chapiron’s cameras weave their way through sweaty, bass-thumping bacchanals, survey drug- and alcohol-induced sexcapades and zoom in on a burgeoning romance. But the writer-director is nowhere near a bold or immersive enough stylist to give his surfaces the kind of hallucinatory sheen or perverse poetry that Harmony Korine brought to last year’s “Spring Breakers”, for example.

The resulting film is, both dramatically and formally, far less outré than it thinks. “Smart Ass” – which, as HEC has been eager to make clear, is a work of fiction – indeed seems to go out of its way to avoid exploring its most provocative subtexts: the shifting social and sexual dynamics within its band of outsiders, the alienation of minorities in France’s most rarified spheres, how the cutthroat ecosystem of a premier business school fits into the larger fabric of a country known for its wide-reaching safety net and wariness of capitalism.

Instead, Chapiron chooses to demonstrate bluntly – over and over – how these students diligently apply concepts gleaned in class to exploit those more vulnerable than they are.

A pale imitation of other campus films

All that would be fine if “Smart Ass” at least played well. But with its flat dialogue and thinly conceived characters, the film limps along in perfunctory fashion, failing to deliver on its implicit promise of something revelatory, jolting or even mildly insightful.

Chapiron – who co-founded Kourtrajme, a collective of young artists often described as “cutting-edge” – ran into a similar problem with his previous outing, “Dog Pound”, an authentically bleak-looking US-set drama hampered by a narrative steeped in prison-movie platitudes.

“Smart Ass” finally adds up to little more than another film about hyper-articulate, over-privileged kids behaving badly – and one without the virtues of some of its American predecessors: the technical mastery and Shakespearean undertow of David Fincher’s “The Social Network”, for example, or the energy of Roger Avary’s Bret Easton Ellis adaptation, “Rules of Attraction”. And though it flirts with issues of ethnic tension, Chapiron’s film certainly lacks the polemical punch of works like John Singleton’s “Higher Learning” or Spike Lee’s “School Daze”.

The fact that “Smart Ass” is set in France seems almost incidental – though to borrow a French culinary image (as far from the food trucks as one can imagine), the movie is like a perfectly puffy soufflé that collapses as soon as it’s placed on the table.


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