Dir: Emmanuelle Bercot
I'm not usually all that fond of the English language titles given to foreign films (Show Me Love, for instance, is such a weedy title for the brilliantly named Fucking Amal), but in the case of Mes Cheres Etudes - literally My Expensive Education - the English title is actually better. Student Services has a nice double meaning; referring to both a University department and making ironic comment on the plot, which sees language student Laura (Deborah Francois) turning to prostitution so that she can make ends meet while living alone and going to classes.
An adaptation of a fact based novel by 'Laura D', a student who apparently went through much of what is depicted here, this was a TV movie in France. That becomes obvious only in the last scene, which uses captions to tell us, to somewhat hectoring effect, about the realities behind this story (apparently some 40,000 French students are working as occasional prostitutes to pay their bills... HEY! Where are you going? Come back and read the rest of the review.) Until these last moments though, Mes Cheres Etudes is not what I see when I think 'TV Movie'.
Deborah Francois became an instant favourite of mine when I saw her in Denis Dercourt's brilliant, Hitchcockian, The Page Turner. Since then, the young Belgian actress has shown great range, and a willingness to take on some daunting parts, none more so than this one, which calls on her to go to some very dark places, and, most of the time, do so naked.
Laura begins selling herself as a way to pay the rent, but the film shows us how both she and her motives change, soon she's buying clothes and bags, and taking clients calls while at dinner with her new boyfriend (Mathieu Demy). She begins to assume that she's extremely streetwise, but there a couple of incidents that disabuse her of that notion. All this and more, Francois puts across with total honesty. It's a fearless performance, and one that must surely have thrown up a new challenge every day.
Director Emmanuelle Bercot's eye is unflinching, and this is a frank and intimate film, but it doesn't, for all the nudity on display (Francois may spend more screen time naked than she does dressed), feel exploitative. Sex and nudity become currency in Laura's life, be it with her clients or her boyfriend, and the scenes that deal with this sad reality are the absolute crux of both character and film. While her film is relentlessly downbeat, Bercot never - until those final captions - lets it become one of those that beats us over the head with its issue, and I think she really has Francois to thank for that, because her performance means that the film remains specific and personal rather than becoming about a larger social problem.
Mes Cheres Etudes won't be for everyone (seriously, if you want to show Granny an overachieving TV movie, stick with The Queen), but if, like me, your taste in cinema runs to the darker side and if, like me, you're a fan of Deborah Francois, then - tough as it is - this comes highly recommended.