When choosing films to watch with teens, it's difficult to find a balance between subjects they're wondering about and those that might be too complicated for them to handle. It's this attempt to find balance between childhood concerns and adult worries that Children of the Princess of Cleves struggles with throughout the 69-minute documentary. That it flounders isn't because it's a bad film; it's just an indication of the difficulty of pinning down the hopes, dreams and fears of working-class teens.
For those who have seen the 2006 documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars (also appropriate for teens), this film has a similar feel: Put classic literature in the hands of the underprivileged and see what happens, what connections they make between the story and their own lives. But while Shakepeare did so within the confines of an actual penitentiary, Cleves grapples with a less obvious prison: working-class life in Marseilles, France. It's an environment overwhelmed by both tradition and a desire to break free—from family responsibilities, misogyny informed by religion, class barriers.
Through a series of shorts interviews with parents and teens, plus interwoven recitations of passages from The Princess of Cleves, we get a picture of a French society that hasn't much changed for many people since the novel's publication in 1678. In that story, a teenage girl struggles to find her own identity among a multitude of sexual, class, religious and gender pressures. To put it mildly: There are more than a few connections. One of the more moving scenes in the film is a discussion between a girl and her best friend about their first-ever trip to the Louvre; it is almost heartbreaking to realize these teens have never been to an art museum, moreso that they realize it's a place their parents never would have taken them.
On the whole, this is a film that will open up a conversation with teens about the pressures they feel to grow up in a world that seems more complicated by the minute. It also might be a good way for teens to realize that their problems and concerns not only transcend cultures but centuries.
CICFF screens Children of the Princess of Cleves in French at 9pm Friday, October 28, at Facets Multimedia (1517 W Fullerton Ave).