Using a classic Gallic literary text — considered by many to be the first true novel — as a framework, Regis Sauder probes the personalities and prospects of contemporary lower-class urban French high-school students in docu “Children of the Princess of Cleves.” Pic provides ample evidence of intelligent sensitivity among its multiethnic subjects, though clearly not everyone here is going to escape the violence and poverty of their Marseille public-housing roots. Pic’s exposure will likely be limited to further fest play and TV sales in French-speaking territories, but it’s a fine piece of refined cinema verite.
Purportedly written (albeit anonymously) by Parisian noblewoman Mme. de la Fayette, the 1678 “La Princesse du Cleves” offered a then-unusual (and wildly popular) portrait of a fictive heroine in an otherwise historically accurate royal court a century earlier. Mademoiselle de Chartres is a teenage girl whose loveless arranged marriage to a prince grows more awkward when she falls in love with a duke, though in the end, the now-widowed protagonist denies herself that happiness to enter a convent.
Remote as that scenario might seem, the kids here relate in different ways to it — seeing a mirror of high-school social divisions in court politics, glimpsing themselves in self-sacrificing or pleasure-seeking characters. They recite passages, and occasionally (in casual dress) act them out.
But the focus gradually shifts away from literary history toward contemporary young lives at risk. Some are from conservative Muslim families whose strictures they perceive as unrealistic in modern France. Others are overburdened by caring for younger siblings, or have other reasons — including simple self-defeating inertia — to underprepare for the all-important baccalaureate exams that might help assure their path to a better life.
With heritages African, Arabic, Gallic and all mixes in-between, protags illustrate a rapidly changing nation’s new melting pot. Several parents are interviewed, representing an older generation of hard knocks, some with (occasionally unfairly) high expectations for their offspring.
Largely consisting of closeups — every teenage acne spot duly captured — pic is expertly edited, delivering a great deal of verite narrative within a slim running time.