Review: Les Amandiers (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi)

“The way that the energy created both in front of and behind the camera allows the audience to be swept up in the moment in time that Bruni-Tedeschi and her cast magically evoke is extraordinary.”

In creating a fictionalized version of her time spent at the iconic École des Amandiers in the mid 1980s, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi has made a film that is a stunning exploration of coming of age both emotionally and professionally, and Les Amandiers is filled with such a joyous energy that I could have happily spent another two hours with her troupe of young actors. It’s rare that a film really makes you feel the communal energy that comes with both a group of young people living a life-changing experience together and when actors get together to explore the creative process, but she and her astonishing ensemble truly immerse you in this environment and the result is something that borders on the euphoric even as tragedy encroaches on this youthful utopia. It’s difficult to put into words precisely the effect the film had on me; it’s almost as if the emotional states of the characters were being transferred to me as each scene unfolded.

While all of Bruni-Tedeschi’s previous films have focused solely on a protagonist heavily inspired by herself, this time she opens up the film to focus on a large ensemble of actors-in-training in addition to her younger self, and she has put together what is by far the best ensemble of 2022. The star of the ensemble is Nadia Tereszkiewicz, who in playing her director’s alter ego doesn’t go for a direct imitation of her but instead does a wonderful approximation of the at once fiery and neurotic energy that would become her trademark. Tereszkiewicz is utterly captivating from the moment Stella is introduced, demonstrating an eye-popping exhibitionist streak in order to stand out among the group of young actors fighting for a place in the École des Amandiers, and when her doomed romance with fellow actor Étienne takes more prominence in the second half of the film, she’s an enchanting mix of lovestruck, naïve, scared, and stubborn that makes a messy relationship totally convincing. But Bruni-Tedeschi and Tereszkiewicz never lose sight of the fact that Stella is above all else an actress waiting for her artistic birth, and through Stella’s experiences we see how acting is for some performers a way to understand both themselves and the world around them.

Despite being the nominal lead of the film, she thankfully doesn’t overwhelm it, with both the script and her performance giving the other young actors a chance to shine, and they all excel. Sofiane Bennacer is the epitome of the 80s-era scruffy, brooding loner as Étienne. Bennacer brings an off-kilter charisma to the role that makes one totally understand why Stella becomes so devoted to him despite his heroin addiction that clearly won’t end well. There’s a darkness to him that is transfixing even as it transforms into violent jealousy or the emptiness of his addiction. As Adèle, a fictionalized version of Eva Ionesco, the 80s club girl who first became famous for the pornographic images of her taken by her mother when she was around 10 years old, Clara Bretheau embodies her mischievous, fun-loving energy fabulously, while also showing how her messed-up childhood has left her with issues of self-loathing and a hunger for validation. Through Adèle, we see how acting can become a tool for personal healing and reinvention.

In smaller roles Vassili Schneider, Noham Edje, Eva Danino, Liv Henneguier, Baptiste Carrion-Weiss, Alexia Chardard, and Zoé Adjani play other members of the troupe who struggle with conflicts between the professional and personal lives along with the entangled emotional and sexual relationships that develop among them; all of them are fantastic. The entire troupe are characters that are as melodramatic, self-obsessed, ambitious, and horny as you’d expect from a group of young actors working and partying together 24/7, but you can’t help but love this wonderfully weird group of twentysomethings as they experience real life for the first time. A special shout-out should be given to Suzanne Lindon, who is very funny in her three scenes as a pathetic hanger-on who does not take her rejection from the École des Amandiers very well.

The two main adult members of the cast, Louis Garrel and Micha Lescot, are also excellent playing the only two characters who aren’t fictionalized. Garrel takes on the daunting task of playing iconic opera, theatre, and film director Patrice Chéreau, and while he looks and sounds nothing like Chéreau, Garrel through sheer force of presence makes one understand how this man became an iconic, mythic figure to a generation of young actors, and how he treasured the creative process of putting a play together and impressing upon the young actors the importance of the work itself, even in the smallest roles. Bruni-Tedeschi, while making it clear in several interviews that she to this day adores Chéreau and considers him her artistic father, doesn’t shy away from depicting his darker side – his cocaine addiction, his mood swings, and his casual pursuit of multiple students at the school. I wasn’t familiar with Micha Lescot before this, but I was very impressed by his work here as the lesser-known second-in-command of the school Pierre Romans. Lescot is the “warmer”, more human counterpart to the god-like Chéreau, and he has the perfect demeanour for a teacher whose goal is to guide his students through the difficult process of discovering themselves through creating art. Lescot is such a gently commanding presence, and like Garrel doesn’t shy from showing how drugs (in this case heroin) can transform Romans into a less-than-ideal mentor. Lescot is already well-known in the French theatre world, but I hope this is his breakthrough in film.

This is by far Bruni-Tedeschi’s strongest work as both a writer and director, and I really did love a lot of the choices she makes in both areas. Working together with regular collaborators Noémie Lvovsky and Agnès de Sacy she has crafted a script that uses both comedy and tragedy to portray the journey of actors on the cusp of their careers. The film is divided into a loose structure (auditions, the New York trip, preparing for the Platanov performance at the Avignon festival) which begins with a joyous, euphoric collective before settling both the audience and the onscreen troupe into the repetitive, sometimes frustrating and ultimately fulfilling process that is learning the craft and creating a piece of theatre. While the opening thirty minutes or so, in which a large group of actors audition for a place at the school and are ultimately accepted or rejected, is the dazzling high point of the film, the rest of the film is an immersive exploration of how acting can be a form of self-discovery, and how even the act of physically embodying a character can force you to set aside your own ego to serve the character and the play. From the opening minutes where we see potential students asked by Romans why they want to be actors, providing a variety of responses, from giving meaning to their youth which they feel is passing them by without meaning, to doing it for the fame, Bruni-Tedeschi demonstrates how performing and bonding with your fellow actors can be something that isn’t just frivolous play-acting but a way to acquire and process (in a heightened form) the major life experiences that young people are so desperate to have, even if their youthful energy and naïveté leads them head-on into risky situations. It’s also, as seen in the beautiful final minutes, a space of catharsis that can be a source of comfort.

Given that the film is set in the mid 1980s, drug use and AIDS are obviously a looming presence over the sense of experimentation and freedom that the group embraces wholeheartedly, and while Bruni-Tedeschi is frank about how they lead to tragedy and fear within the group, she also celebrates how this emotionally charged atmosphere is a space for personal growth. This extends to the rehearsal room, which becomes a sometimes volatile environment where “anything goes”, allowing the students to become the best actors they could be, even if some of the more boundary-pushing exercises might raise an eyebrow in today’s climate. The film is often laugh-out-loud funny in a way that is shocking at certain moments but in a way that can only be the result of young people being both wildly overdramatic and feeling free to pursue every sudden impulse. Seeing it with an audience definitely helps, this being to me what Triangle of Sadness was to so many people. It’s also important to note that while Bruni-Tedeschi is able to look back on her experience with evident fondness, it’s not rose-coloured nostalgia but instead a clear-eyed elegy to a specific moment in time, filled with both joy and tragedy, that formed her into the artist she is today.

Bruni-Tedeschi’s direction is a marvel of intimacy and looseness, her use of close-ups and exploring the spaces the characters inhabit works to truly immerse the audience among the actors. Even just observing them, Bruni-Tedeschi makes them all feel like individuals instead of a homogeneous mass. The way she focuses on faces, whether the leads or a bit player, demonstrates a keen awareness as to how we are all “acting” in one way or another at all times, and how the eyes above all can be the ultimate communicators of our emotions. She seems to really be embracing a sense of joyous chaos with this film, and it’s the energy that emanates from her directorial choices, both aesthetically and in how she directs the actors, that helps give the film its youthful energy. This is also greatly aided by the look of the film – the cinematography by Julien Poupard is ravishing, adopting a slightly hazy, grainy look that makes you feel like you’re watching an artefact from the era without falling into gooey nostalgia. Anne Weil’s editing is also key to creating the immersive environments, the cuts reflecting the heightened emotions of the characters. And the soundtrack is fantastic, a mix of classical pieces that elevate the emotion of key moments and 80s hits that help to firmly establish a sense of time and place. And any film that employs Les Rita Mitsouko on its soundtrack is doing something right in my book.

One could argue that the film has flaws – that the focus lingers slightly too much on the Stella/Étienne romance in the second half compared to the more ensemble nature of the first hour, that the size of the ensemble leaves some of its members underdeveloped, that the film is more mood than plot and what little plot there is has been seen many times before, that these characters can be loud and eventually exhausting to be around. But these ‘flaws’ make the film more real if anything, as you feel like you’re watching memories projected onto a screen rather than a meticulous blend of memories and fiction. And having spent some time hanging around aspiring actors as a teenager, the characterizations presented here are spot-on.

If I could use just one word to describe Les Amandiers, it is “generous”. The way that the energy created both in front of and behind the camera allows the audience to be swept up in the moment in time that Bruni-Tedeschi and her cast magically evoke is extraordinary, and by the end of the film it’s almost like you’ve become a part of the group yourself. By sharing the memories both joyous and tragic of her artistic coming-of-age, Bruni-Tedeschi communicates to the audience how the act of performing and the collaborative process it requires can be life-affirming in the purest way. This is a truly special film, and once again the English-language critics out of Cannes completely misunderstood and misrepresented it. Fortunately the critical reaction in France has been very positive though and hopefully it undergoes a critical re-evaluation outside of France at some point.