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« Bend Sinister | Main | Lights in the Dusk »
Sunday
Sep252016

To Be and to Have (Être et avoir)

There are numerous miniature delights in this film, yet perhaps the most magnificent scene comes during a springtime thunderstorm. A sixtyish teacher (Georges Lopez) accompanies two students with two umbrellas from the door of his schoolhouse to a waiting van, a much more complicated task than one would imagine. The two children are not nearly as different in age as some of his other pupils, yet one of them follows his instructions precisely, covers his head with his satchel, and understands the principle of the fragile device keeping him dry; the other, however, seems to get none of this, even though a small child instinctively knows what to do when it rains. A microcosm for Lopez's remarkable world, at once tiny and enormously large.

The smallness comes from the location of our documentary, rural France (we begin and end our visit with cows and green fields as interminable as Sahara dunes). Without a spot of research you would not guess that the population of Saint-Étienne-sur-Usson numbers no more than a few hundred, in no small part to the warmth Lopez imparts to both his immaculate classroom and his pupils, ages four to ten. At the beginning, we have a lesson in orthography using a word that every French child will have mastered before he sets foot in school; later, Lopez will teach his youngest prodigies the male and female versions of "friend." That the children of different ages have to interact and yet retain more than a little discipline and decorum in that interaction does not bother them, and it certainly doesn't bother Lopez. He is courteous, caring, immeasurably patient, and perhaps most importantly, perfectly calm. His voice only goes up in mock emotion or to emphasize a part of a sentence not quite understood. At one point we are told that he shares teaching duties with a certain Tatiana, but no evidence of such partition ever manifests itself. When the younger ones are playing (Lopez understands they will learn nothing if they are browbeaten all day), the older ones are assigned projects that harness some of their strengths as well as delve into their weaknesses. We get little of the home life of the students apart from a quick glance into the farmhouse of the class heavyweight, Julien. Julien helps his mom sweep the stalls of their farm then struggles with her through his math homework with an alarming lack of confidence – perhaps because every wrong answer is met with the back of her hand (another relative suggests the equation, "What's six smacks a day for two days?"). Julien has a tense relationship with his only coeval, Olivier, who is more sensitive and therefore more the victim than the bully. When we find out Olivier's secret towards the film's end, we nod in recognition. Such are the simple concerns of children, rarely mysterious, cynical, or evil. Their pain is reflected in their attitude, and a great teacher like Lopez knows the truth before they sob it to him quietly.

About two-thirds through, our documentary halts its depiction of daily events to interview the schoolmaster. A man of infinite serenity, Lopez surveys the plight of his father, a farmhand from Andalusia and, as he puts it, "what we call an immigrant." His father, like all good parents, especially those of humble means, only wanted his son to have a better life than he did. And Lopez always knew what he wanted to do. He never boasts that he was especially talented as a schoolchild, although if the aim of education is to prepare one for adult life, then few could have been as successful. "I used to love being in school so much as a child," he says, "that I would spend my free time playing the teacher for other kids, even some my age." The pleasure that crosses his lips as he relates this oddity is not one of self-satisfaction, but of contentment with the world. How can the world be wicked if it allowed him to identify his vocation as a child and pursue it with such zeal? And aren't children the future of this world? His father died twenty years ago, right before he arrived in Saint-Étienne-sur-Usson, but Lopez has been teaching for thirty-five years and is only eighteen months away from retirement. Upon hearing him confess his plans, his children resort to a stereotypically French fail-safe strategy and threaten to strike.

It is perhaps sad that the film engendered a lengthy legal dispute which can easily be researched online, a dispute motivated, it should be said, not by finances but by what is perceived as a breach of privacy. What is more interesting is the film's title, a pair of helping verbs, to wit, the two ways to conjugate compound verbs in French. You could also say that some things are and some things have things that are; perhaps there are people who are themselves owing to personality and people whose personality is based on their possessions. We are never told whether Lopez has a family or whether, like a nun or priest, he has simply adopted a community as his own. Nothing interrupts our enjoyment of the quiet moments shared by trees and snow, the plain road, the simple beauty of winter. Lopez seems in harmony with all these pacific elements, as if his wisdom were as natural as the rapport that the children develop because they understand that squabbling and pouting will never take them far in this life or any other. They cook together, breaking eggs and pouring flour; they correct each other in the mildest way; they rarely tease or push – and such instances are met with swift intervention by Lopez. And what of the turtle seen crawling through the schoolhouse at the film's beginning, or the vivarium of chelonians seen later on? A mawkish image for the torpor of modern education? As it were, it most likely indicates that for some a vocation is not thrust upon them but grows within. And if the beauty of the world is within you, you will remark little difference between a tiny little town in France and the sunset beaches of Tahiti. Not that everyone has any interest in Tahiti.   

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