French Connections

Article excerpt


The setting is a one-room schoolhouse, which is momentarily unoccupied except for a pair of turtles. Wet snow rattling against the window reminds you of the bracing gray bluster of the day outside. Snow-laden evergreens are shrugging their branches in the wind, like sighing giants; while inside, the turtles labor with comic solemnity across the floor, beneath sun-colored furniture that will soon be bouncing with children.

The setting is the first-class cabin of an airplane, which is entirely filled with dozing passengers. Cocooned in white blankets, they lie silent in a dark and droning space that might as well not even have an outside. Video screens flash in identical rows before the sleepers, as if transmitting their collective dream: a scene of flaming chaos.

Let's hear it for French cinema, which has tossed up these exemplary moments in a pair of remarkable new releases: To Be and to Have by Nicolas Philibert and demonlover by Olivier Assayas. The first takes the form of a documentary and has the feel of an elegiac romance. The second takes the form of a feature and has the feel of a critical essay, or a delirious thriller, or maybe a critical delirium.

More to the point, the first deals with a rural community, which Philibert portrays as enduring, if not timeless. The second deals with the nowhereland of international business and the Internet, which Assayas portrays as existing in hypermodern, calamitous flux. Most of us live somewhere between these extremes--and we're lucky to have two such terrific movies to help us plot our location.

Let me introduce To Be and to Have through understatement, which is the method Philibert slyly practices. His film is a study of Georges Lopez, a veteran schoolteacher in the Auvergne region, and the dozen students he nurtured in his last year before retirement. To be more precise: Lopez nurtured thirteen students of all ages, all at the same time, teaching them every subject in the curriculum and never once raising his voice. Anybody who has handled even two kids, for as little as two hours, will look upon Lopez with awe; and Philibert's film deserves a similar respect, since it shares this man's virtue of being patiently, sympathetically tuned in.

What you learn by watching Lopez is simple enough: The man could be unfailingly attentive because he loved all of these children, from the grimiest, most woolgathering 4-year-old--the natural comedian of the picture, always playing to the camera--to the most awkward, underachieving near-adolescent, who was about to enter the regional middle school on a split decision. He loved them; he loved his work with them; and he loved having Philibert's crew in the classroom, since the filmmakers helped him savor the final months of his career. What you feel with Lopez, though, is anything but simple. It's nothing less than the deep paradox of time, which plods forward, turtlelike, for every individual and yet for the community revolves like the seasons.

Philibert begins with the circle: images of men and boys herding cattle in the snow, to the chiming of a distant bell. Before he gets to anything so newfangled as pedagogy, he wants to look at the landscape, the weather, the motions of rural labor. These are subjects to which he will periodically return throughout the film, often accompanying them with an airy, perpetual-motion musical score by Philippe Hersant, so that he evokes the turning of the year. The gesture seems reminiscent of an older documentary: Georges Rouquier's classic film on rural French life, Farrebique. But whereas Rouquier sought to reassure with poetry--his film, made in the aftermath of World War II, showed the French that their earth still flourished--Philibert wants to stimulate with clear, direct prose. Yes, spring follows winter, and one generation succeeds the next--but you still need to know how to spell properly. If you're lucky, you'll have a few years to learn how, under the calm eye of a Georges Lopez. …