Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s Once in a Lifetime is a French classroom drama that pays homage to the victims of the Holocaust and the victims of the post-Charlie Hebdo era. Inspired by true events, the film tells the story of a motivational teacher named Anne Gueguen (Ariane Ascaride), who worked in a working-class school in Créteil, a commune in the Southeastern suburbs of Paris, who influences her students to participate in France’s National Contest of Resistance and Deportation. The students will have to hand in a creative project on the theme of “Children and Teenagers Under the Nazi Regime.”
Though the students come from various cultural and religious backgrounds, tension and intolerance within the social structure of the school are only hinted at. On the other hand, Once in a Lifetime focuses on the importance of education, what education could do for the students and, especially, what lessons youngsters could learn from history. Characterization and plot are both largely based on preset archetypes. In the case of the characters, the students are expectedly unruly but likable and their eventual “redemption” is neither threatened nor questioned. Furthermore, the director chooses to focus on the collective (the class) rather than the individual (a student or the teacher). Even the teacher is rather tame, compared to the charismatic figures of such films as Dead Poets Society. This approach works on a number of individual sequences, such as that in which the students visit the Shoah Memorial in Paris. As they study the evidence of the genocide, especially the photos of the children deported to the concentration camps, they are confronted with history. Mention-Schaar allows her camera to linger on their faces and highlight the importance of this moment of awakening. Then, she follows it up with a scene depicting them at the hostel dorm, which recalls those of the concentration camps, happily enjoying life, affected by their experiences of the day, which shows itself in a sprightly manifestation of joie de vivre.
Nonetheless, for the most part, Once in a Lifetime suffers from a notable lack of focus. Though the film engages a realistic approach through its handheld cameras, the shots seem far too set up and the ends up looking stagey and awkward rather than spontaneous. Likewise, the disappointingly predictable narrative makes the movie feel dull. While the message of the film is admirable, Once in a Lifetime constantly appears to lower its standards, perhaps for fear of coming across as threatening. As a result, it feels neither challenging nor particularly entertaining or compelling. – ★★
LES HÉRITIERS || 2014, France || Drama || Directed by – Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar / Produced by – Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar, Pierre Kubel / Written by – Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar, Ahmed Dramé / Music by – Ludovico Einaudi / Cinematography by – Myriam Vinocour / Edited by – Benoît Quinon / Starring – Ariane Ascaride, Ahmed Dramé / Running time: 105 mins.