It’s pretty easy to offend someone these days, isn’t it? For the past few years, an age of resentment has simultaneously grown as a counterculture against elitism, prejudice and right-wing media. It’s a complicated issue; when do free-speech and jokes lose their acceptability, or were they even acceptable to begin with? Le Brio examines the relationship between an aspiring law student, Neïla, and her encounter with Professor Pierre Mozard, an expert in his field, with some evidently choice opinions on international students.
What compels our viewing lies squarely in the performances of Daniel Auteuil and Camélia Jordana, without whom the film’s success would diminish considerably. They have to win us quickly. Following Rémy Chevrin’s wonderfully shot pans of the University of Paris, Le Brio plunges us into one of Pierre’s class as Neïla arrives late. Antagonising her, seeking to humiliate, Pierre makes jabs of Sharia Law, Algerian names, and the way she dresses. All live-streamed, Pierre is forced to take Neïla under his wing to prepare her for upcoming inter-university competitions – all to keep a board of directors off his back, and protect the University’s image.
A counter to the counterculture, Le Brio has little concern for offence, indignation or appeasing an audience’s protestations with the character Pierre, offering a valiant argument against the blame and cancel culture we find ourselves within. Yet, the writing team accomplishes a sense of balance; Pierre is by no means a hero, and Auteuil does his utmost to rile a response, proving this point of quick blame and immediately devolving the accuser’s argument.
Let’s get it over with – the character of Pierre is a deplorable racist, with a dangerous level of wit, utilising archaic methods of teaching. He is also the best thing in the film. Intentionally offensive, Auteuil refrains from playing Pierre as ‘misunderstood’ – he’s just a dick. The character is a testament of French comedy, blunt in delivery and refusing to conceal humour behind sarcasm, a tremendously British delivery mechanic. Pierre is so depraved in his attitude, that it’s difficult not to find the performance compelling. His chemistry with Jordana is wholly natural until the pitfall of the climax, where a budding understanding, which took time to develop, poisons the dynamic by resolving rapidly.
Her reactions to racial comments, understandably angered, humanise her performance, as the emotional response is believable. Disenchanted with the world – particularly with the old white patriarchs in it – Jordana’s engagement with the character connects with viewers. She isn’t perfect, however, often leaping to conclusions, allowing her temper to overcome her and her pride to slip into arrogance. Throughout, the evolution of Neïla has run seamlessly; her relationships with her mother, Pierre, boyfriend Mounir and importantly herself have momentum, but no conclusion, as Le Brio seems to force a stalemate between her and Pierre.
Perhaps the film’s best are the quieter moments as Jordana and Auteuil reflect on the impact one has had on the other. Chevrin’s wonderful use of light as Jordana travels across the murky Parisian evening, passing the fluorescent tower blocks, contrasts Pierre wandering across the orange-hued cobbles that filmmakers normally prefer to capture of the city.
And then, Le Brio falls on its sword. It stumbles into the narrative derisions it was so wonderfully avoiding. With happy endings, schmaltzy sacrifices and tropes it was lampooning before, it’s a disappointment from an otherwise clever piece of writing. As Pierre and Neïla hurl insults at one another, smiling and laughing, there’s a sense that Attal was afraid of his own film’s gall, tying up the gutsy narrative with a cheerful, lurid bow of an ending.