British teachers watching Bertrand Tavernier's latest film, It All Starts Today (Ca Commence Aujourd'hui), may be struck by the differences between the French education system and our own. The film is set in a nursery school , or ecole maternelle, which offers free pre-school education to all children between the ages of two and six. Although some treat this chiefly as a child-minding service (the school day may be as long as eight hours, five days a week), the state takes la maternelle very seriously, and expects it to give pupils a grounding in reading, writing and maths, as well as socialising the child in preparation for primary school.
It All Starts Today describes the life of a headteacher running an ecole maternelle in a former mining town in northern France. It's not unusual for men to teach young children in France, where around one in four or five primary school teachers is male. Daniel Lef vre, played with conviction and energy by Philippe Torreton, has to battle with a penny-pinching local bureaucracy, as well as with the problems suffered by families in an impoverished region where unemployment stands at more than 30 per cent.
Daniel's partner (played by Maria Pitarresi) is a sculptor in metal and frequently wears full welding gear - a wry reminder of the heavy industry that used to employ the men of the town, but has now disappeared.
It's easy to empathise with a teacher who never seems able to deal with one thing without having to start on another. Even his conversations in the corridor are continually broken off to shake a parent's hand or pat a child's head. His failure to attend to one such interruption - when an alcoholic mother asks how to cope with the authorities over her unpaid debts - leads to the tragedy around which the film revolves. Torreton enters into the part as though he spent every day of his life dealing with social workers, infants and mothers.
The film was made in a real school, with a single class (and not a hand-picked collection of photogenic children); it was based on the experiences of Tavernier's son-in-law, Dominique Sampiero, who co-wrote the script. "When I heard him talking about his job," Tavernier says, "I was so moved that I would have felt guilty had Inot made this film."
Sampiero has since written a book about his experiences - and Tavernier points out that in France, it outsold the memoirs of Monica Lewinsky.
There is no ambiguity about the message he is trying to put across: "I wanted to show that in a prosperous country, at the end of the 20th century, people are still living below the poverty line." And he accuses the state of no longer being prepared to accept its responsibilities in a climate of economic liberalism and reliance on market forces.
Yet his film deals with issues that were already present in Jean Benoit-Levy and Marie Esptein's 1932 semi-documentary film La Maternelle (which, surprisingly, Tavernier had not seen until after completing Ca Commence Aujourd'hui).
As every teacher knows, when children are struggling with difficult family or social circumstances, the fundamental problems remain, as does the teacher's occasional sense of helplessness in dealing with them. In France, a country that attaches a great deal of importance to education, Tavernier's film has already been welcomed as a moving account of the difficulties teachers have to face.
'It All Starts Today' opens today at the Renoir, Curzon Soho and Cine Lumi re in London, and at selected cinemas throughout the UK