Hang on to Your Emotions
Nick Pinkerton on Claire Simon’s Young Solitude and Récréations

Young Solitude and Récréations play Sunday, January 20 as part of Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 2019.

A towering figure in the world of French documentary cinema, Claire Simon has been working steadily in the cinema since a mid-1970s internship with Algerian filmmaker Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina, and has been directing both narrative and nonfiction films—or films that combine elements of both—for over 30 years now. Simon met Lakhdar-Hamina while still a student of Arabic and anthropology, and would in time be drawn into the orbit of the Ateliers Varan, an organization for training documentarians based in Paris but international in scope founded in 1981 with the backing of another anthropologist-cum-filmmaker, Jean Rouch.

If not quite achieving the notoriety of Rouch, Simon has established herself as one of France’s leading practitioners of the documentary form. In the United States she remains something of an unknown quantity, notwithstanding the longtime advocacy of her friend Ross McElwee, but that state of affairs seems slowly to be changing. In 2017 Simon traveled stateside to receive the True Vision award from True/False, the festival in Columbia, Missouri, that specializes in so-called hybrid documentary work. In February, New York’s Metrograph theater will give an American theatrical run to her film Le concours (The Competition, 2016), which records and distills the process of applying and interviewing for one of the coveted 40 annual slots for training at the Fondation Européenne pour les Métiers de l’Image et du Son, familiarly la Fémis, among the most well-regarded film schools in France and indeed the world, and a former employer of Simon’s. Examining the examiners, it’s a cool-eyed interrogation of the cultural gatekeeping process, pinpointing innumerable little slights relating to class and race along the way, and so pulling back the curtain on the process whereby the culture industry perpetuates its own familiar image in a coming generation.

Pedagogical institutions also provide a framework for the two Simon films featured at MoMI’s First Look: 1992’s Récréations, set entirely on a school playground courtyard occupied by approximately kindergarten-age children, and 2018’s Young Solitude (Premières solitudes), featuring a cast of ten eleventh-grade students at the collège and lycée Romain Rolland in Ivry-sur-Seine, a southeastern suburb of Paris. Made nearly a quarter century apart, the films show a great consistency of method—Simon shoots them herself, achieving a remarkable level of unobtrusive intimacy in doing so, while using irruptions of nondiegetic music to banish any illusion of seeing unmediated reality—and interests, using a focus group-like sampling of schoolmates as a social microcosm. Each film belongs wholly to its era—the omnipresence of earbuds, for example, plays a key role in Young Solitude—while at the same time accessing and capturing certain perennial truths about the developmental stages they depict: these are movies that invite shivers of recognition, and which excavate half-buried memories.

The inspiration for Récréations, as with many of Simon’s projects, came from close to home—observing with interest the roughhousing play of the children at her young daughter’s school, Simon asked and received permission to shoot there. The result is a series of vignettes from the schoolyard, very often shot at eye level with the small subjects. Barring the opening image of a young girl awakening in bed, Simon limits herself to recording the playground during the recess period, capturing the drama of improvised storytelling games, shifting allegiances, and miniature uprisings that occur every day on this small patch of concrete. The opening scene, which runs close to a quarter of the film’s overall runtime, establishes issues that will be at play throughout: gendered dynamics; the relationship between self-appointed narrators, who issue commands and author the rules of the game, and the actors, who obey them; and the swiftness with which these arrangements can fall to pieces.

A small boy with a red neckerchief, Thomas, leads a smaller boy into a corner of the courtyard, intent on playing a game of barber, casting himself in the position of pride. Another boy, presumably noting that the metal barrier that’s been designated as a barber shop looks rather more like prison bars, tries to intervene, changing the story to one of jailbreak, but Thomas wrests back control of the story, dominating the interloper, chasing off a group of girls proposing a domestic game of their own and, when the prison narrative becomes irresistible, finally taking control of it himself, even continuing it as a one-man show when his playmates have been led off by other prospects. As the group reconvene, Thomas proposes an organized assault on a child called Alex, but for a moment the little mob drifts out of mic range, and in that moment the pack has redirected its fury towards Thomas, who they take turns methodically kicking at while he perches on a jungle gym structure, letting out almost simian shrieks. “He wanted to put us in prison,” one of the boys explains, “So we attacked him!” Sic semper tyrannis! But there is some consolation in defeat—the weeping Thomas is defended and comforted by his girl classmates, his sniffles dying down as he walks away hand-in-hand with a group of them, the former blowhard now grown sympathetic in his vanquishing.

“Boys are more fragile than girls,” one of the subjects of Young Solitude is heard to say, and watching Récréations one has the sense that girls are at the very least kinder by natural inclination. The movie concludes with another extended scene of group play in which a gang, principally made of girls, are taking turns making a short jump to the ground from the back of a bench. As they do, a curly-haired girl, Nathalie, looks on and sobs for her mother, paralyzed with fright at the prospect of the leap. There is some exasperation and some chiding and even some mockery from her classmates, but finally an expression of support as Nathalie seems to recognize the essentially psychosomatic nature of her fear (“You know I think it’s in my mind…”), and the girls help her to practice the jump in incremental steps, slowly building her confidence, holding her hand along the way, until she’s able to take the final leap of faith that caps off the film.

One gets a feel throughout for the capriciousness of children at this age, the arbitrariness with which little things can suddenly be assigned a life-or-death importance—the hoarding of collected twigs as though they were more precious than gold, for example—and then just as quickly forgotten. Each recess period is a mini-drama in which grandiose schemes are hatched, only to be swept away by the women who we briefly see tidying the courtyard after the children have returned to class. Simon infiltrates these miniature intrigues and follows them in their state of constant flux by letting scenes play through with an eye to real-time duration and a minimum of obtrusive cutting, limiting externally imposed commentary to the skronky saxophone of composer Pierre-Louis Garcia and a lone piece of voiceover, a spoken opening epigraph from Benedict de Spinoza’s The Ethics: “Man’s inability to control and contain his feelings is something I call ‘servitude.’ Indeed, a man subservient to his feelings isn’t dependent on himself but on chance, whose power over him is so great that he is often forced to do the worst even if he sees the best.”

The subjects of Simon’s latest film, Young Solitude, are rather older than the tykes of Récréations, but they face the same struggles to overmaster their rebellious emotions—as, in fact, all of us do. “Fall in love, then we’ll talk about self-control,” offers one girl to a classmate after she’s chided her friends for their foolishness in punching walls in fits of passion. Premières solitudes is in essence a series of dialogues, and at the center of all of them, in one way or another, is love. The teenaged ensemble, seen breaking apart and recombining in roundelay of seemingly casual pairings and other groupings, talk about their own relationships and their aspirations for them. They speak also about their relationships with their parents and their parents’ relationships with one another, and as they do a pattern emerges, for each child seems to come from a single-parent home, or an otherwise dysfunctional or at the very least nontraditional background. Save for the early appearance of a school nurse and brief cameos from a teacher screening a scene from Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) and one girl’s barman father, grown-ups are almost entirely absent from the action, the kids seemingly left to fend for themselves, like the girl we see doing her shopping alone at the Carrefour supermarket.

Young Solitude ends with a group of youths contemplating a nocturnal cityscape and discussing whether or not humankind is all by itself in the universe, and as one might expect given the title of Simon’s film, while watching it one is reminded over and over again of the keening loneliness of the teenage years, that sense of being both teasingly proximate to and impossibly far away from real life. (In this regard, the selection of Ivry-sur-Seine as a setting is perfect—just a short RER train ride from central Paris, it’s agonizingly peripheral.) Aside from commiseration with peers, those ever-present earbuds offer their own trusty companionship, and play a role in an elating early scene, in which one of the girls dances in a stairwell to the Bollywood hit “Gun Gun Guna,” her pink scarf matching the bannister paint in a touch that Jacques Demy might admire.

Just as resonant as the sense of isolation that Simon captures, though, is the feeling of generational solidarity that is desperate in adults but touching and necessary in youth. (There are few statements of unity more moving in cinema than Edwin Phillips’s simple, tossed-off statement to a newly skint Frankie Darro in William Wellman’s 1933 Wild Boys of the Road: “You know I’m always with ya.”) The subjects of Young Solitude come from a wide variety of backgrounds—a Cambodian girl whose parents are hopelessly estranged; the adopted daughter of a large, impoverished family from rural Nigeria; the son of a Portuguese construction worker easily brought to tears by the thought of his estrangement from his aloof father; the daughter of a lawyer whose diminishing fortunes took the family from the beating heart of Marais to the boring ’burbs. Consequently, they are subject to different pressures of varying degrees of severity, but there is little sense of a hierarchy of grievances. After getting misty eyed over her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, a girl listens to her friend rattle through a frightful family history rife with abuse, schizophrenia, and suicide. “My problems are nothing when compared to yours,” she offers. “It’s not a competition,” the friend replies.

If there is a competition here, it is perhaps with the unseen parents’ generation—a desire to do things better, to follow in no footsteps, to not fall prey to irreconcilable differences and estrangement and divorce, to define one’s future in opposition to one’s family history. The idealism that Simon captures, too, brings memories rushing back, as familiar as the loneliness, the camaraderie and, implicitly, the disappointments that await with the adult crash.