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A transformation of female ambition: L'Étudiante (1988) vs L'Étudiante et Monsieur Henri (2015)

Sometime this year, I spoke with a school friend of mine from St Petersburg (Russia). We both studied at the French language school there and were fascinated with French movies. She still loves French language and I gravitated towards English. Nevertheless, we discussed our University years and ambitions and plans that both of us had. In her case, the absence of such, for it is her mother who was more ambitious for my friend than my friend herself. Despite lacking on her own ambition, my friend’s favourite movie is the one that is about ambition and achieving one’s dreams - L'Étudiante (1988). Every time she watches it, she reminds herself how unambitious she was and longs for reliving her student years but with more ambition. Needless to say, that in the place of the student, Valentine, she sees herself. Well, she actually looks like the actress who plays Valentine – Sophie Marceau.

My own experience in regards to the ambition is more related to another French movie L'Étudiante et Monsieur Henri (2015). The movie which depicts a student in Paris who comes there to pursue her dream of making something useful of herself but meets a challenge of perseverance. For, it is the strength to carry on after a failure that she lacks. The strength that Monsieur Henri, an old grumpy man, helps her find. ‘You are young, live your dream’, he says to Constance.

Remembering the conversation with my school friend gave me a spark to look at the two movies from the perspective of transformation of ambition - from L'Étudiante (1988) to L'Étudiante et Monsieur Henri (2015).

L'Étudiante (1988) – The Student

Screenplay by Claude Pinoteau and Danièle Thompson

Directed by Claude Pinoteau

The story of a young part-time teacher, Valentine, unfolds in Paris where she rents a room in a flat with other students and teachers. Valentine is ambitions, diligent, and hard-working – all the qualities her name reflects which means ‘strong and healthy’. Apart from teaching, she is studying in Sorbonne (Université de Paris, established in 12th century). Valentine’s days revolve around running from one lecture to another, from work to Sorbonne and back. In the spirit of sexual liberation of 1980s and popularity of casual sex she contemplates having a date with no strings attached and discusses it with her friend. A chance soon arises. She meets a jazz musician, Édouard, the name means ‘guardian of his property’. But what was intended as a one-night stand becomes a romance complicated by ambitions and busy lives of the two young people. Juggling her love with the importance of preparing for the final exams, Valentine chooses to excel at her career and be accepted for who she is – an ambitious, intelligent, educated, and independent woman - and not for what Édouard wants her to be. Édouard accepts the situation as he loves Valentine.

L'Étudiante et Monsieur Henri (2015) – The Student and Monsieur Henri

Written and directed by Ivan Calbérac

The story of this movie also takes place in Paris. A free-spirited, Constance (Constance means ‘constant’), comes to Paris from a small town and enters a University, which one is not revealed, as in France one can choose any University to enter without examination. Constance’s going to Paris happens despite her father saying she would be better off where she is, as she does not seem to have any particular talents.

Arriving to Paris, Constance finds it difficult to find a room to rent until she comes across a rental ad put by Monsieur Henri’s son (name Henri means ‘home ruler’). At the address she finds the ‘home ruler’, albeit grumpy and disillusioned, unsuspecting of his son’s advert. Despite the misunderstanding, Constance and Monsieur Henri come to a mutual agreement and she moves in. After studying about a year at her chosen University, Constance does not pass the exams and hides the failure from her parents. Meanwhile, Monsieur Henri, annoyed with his daughter-in-law whom he detests, offers Constance a deal - Constance seduces his son and in return Monsieur Henri will give her three months free of rent accommodation. Constance agrees, but after a while realises it is not worth it. Eventually, Monsieur Henri and Constance form a friendship and he helps her find her calling. He trains her to prepare for the entrance exams to a Musical School in London. Constance puts her best and performs beautifully at the exam but does not pass to be accepted. On returning to Paris, she finds that Monsieur Henri has died, and remembering his words that she should pursue her dreams, she makes a resolution that she will try to enter the Music School in London next year.

Both movies are about young women trying to follow their dreams – one is ambitious and determined on her own without any support or encouragement and the other one is at the beginning of discovering her calling, a bit lost, and in need of guidance. To me, each of these two movies represent a trend of the time they were made in. In France in 1980s as in 2010s anyone, whether a woman or a man, can enter a public University of their choice and study. However, it requires determination and perseverance to not give up and pass all the exams once you are in. Not everyone makes it to the end. It is a sort of discerning equality.

Although the ‘discerning equality’ is still there, I feel, that in 1980s, women were more determined and driven to become someone whether they had support or not for they mostly knew what they wanted. In contrast, the young women of 2010s seem to be lost and have a certain difficulty in pursuing their dreams. They need more support and guidance. Perhaps, they do not feel what it is they should be aiming at or, maybe, they have lost their ‘fighting’ spirit, thinking it will not change anything. This is, of course, just an observation based on the two movies of similar nature produced in a European country, and the conclusions drawn might not apply to the whole of the world. Yet, I believe there is a certain truth in the depictions, for the whole cannot exist without single particulars.

Seraphima Bogomolova

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