Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Être et Avoir - Nicolas Phillibert 2002 

Nicolas Phillibert’s documentary Être et Avoir (To Be and to Have) about an elementary school teacher and his charges in rural France (the Auvergne) is yet another example of the French genius for capturing the spontaneous grace of children in all its complexity. On the heels of rewatching the difficult The Best Way to Walk (Claude Mann) and mindful of films like 400 Blows and Ponette, I was delighted to discover a film that brings us into the unscripted midst of children ranging from 4 to 12 with even less distortion than those venerable works. Phillibert, working as a documentarist, is rewarded for his unobtrusive infiltration and patience with footage of rare intimacy. As viewers we are rewarded by a vicarious glimpse into a world seeming edenic in the purity of its motives--the world “as on the first day,” as the saying goes.

At the center of it all is a man the children respectfully call Monsieur. The use of ‘sir’ is striking, given that children in the U.S. are overwhelmingly on a first-name basis with their teachers. School is the arena in which children must disabuse themselves of the cocooned informality of familial intimacy and learn about the discontinuities and hierarchies of civil society.  For French and German children this involves adoption of the formal mode of address (‘vous’ and ‘Sie’), a usage that will henceforth define their sense of social space and personality. This circumstance alone would preclude the sort of unchecked egalitarianism which flattens out the social world of American schoolchildren. 

The raw nerve of this film is four year old Jojo. Betimes anxious, curious, despondent and ecstatic, this precocious tyke, invested with his entire being in adapting his unschooled self to the conventions of communal instruction and socialization, wears his heart on his sleeve. Along with every other expression of his impulsive spontaneity. It helps that he is alarmingly telegenic. By virtue of his gaunt little face with mousy eyes and a wide mouth reminiscent of a Peanuts character, the workings of his mind are on conspicuous display as he squints and grimaces, complains and delights, laughs and weeps. With no place to hide he negotiates the obstacle course of his lessons, pleasing his teacher, and doing his best to get along with cohorts. At an age predating dissemblance, and not sophisticated enough to dissemble, he is free to be himself so long as he wills good things in good faith. The vehemence of his will to please his revered guide and teacher and the absolute vulnerability such a striving entails, mesmerize and move. What is captured on film is the rarest of the rare: unalloyed guilelessness. If this lad isn’t a ‘revelation’ I don’t know what is. 

What is happening before our eyes in Jojo’s case is the dialectic of impulse and accommodation; a seismic shift in orientation from bodily-affective spontaneity to emotional and intellectual refinement through encounter and deferment. The transition to an interpersonal equilibrium of responsibility and reciprocity. Jojo seems to have mastered it, helped by his innate credulity, his fear of failure (censure) and his burning desire to please. Love is the final source of the authority that guides and to which we aspire, but fear is right in there with it, shadowing as conscience the quest to be worthy of inclusion.

Part of the genius of this documentary is that it is framed by scenes of nature’s seasonal moods and the animals with whom we share our life-world. That is the benefit of the rural setting, which makes the argument for a child’s need for proximity to nature with an eloquence all the more convincing for being wordless. The opening sequence moves from cows being herded in a snow-storm, to a school room floor on which two turtles rather startlingly appear and propel themselves forward. Then cuts to snow-covered fir-trees rocking back and forth in the pale semi-dark of winter. Seldom have trees appeared more like living creatures as they bow and twist about in the wind. The silence of nature pervades the film like a cantus firmus against which the gentle sounds of the organic order pipe up and fade. The film breaths silence as an encompassing membrane into which every cry, chirp, moo, rustle and whisper, is subsumed. What little music is used is of the French polytonal variety: lithe, playful, complex yet unencumbered by any sense of inevitable end-point or pre-established harmonic allegiance. A music blithely repudiating the very notion of inexorability. 

The periodic insertion of natural processes and sounds acts to embed the pedagogic transformation of the children in the eco-system that surrounds and supports human individuation. The result is evocative and ineffable. After an extended monologue in which the teacher reflects on his life and his surviving mother down south, the film cuts to a landscape at dusk as a muted orange remnant of the sun verges behind a distant mountain range. Muffled and plaintive bird calls sound, as pale as the distant hills. Nature in her minor mode.

As much as it is about children qua élèves (students) in the process of adaptation, Être et Avoir is a film about a Father-guide in the form of instructor. Much more than a task-master and teacher of the scripted activities of elementary education, he acts as counselor and, remarkably, intimate friend. Through it all he is the living image of the ideal and paradigmatic adult: gentle, respectful, rational, and unimpeachably neutral. The voice of encouragement and justice, he fully merits the affection and attachment of his charges, who are visibly ill at ease with the prospect of his exit from their lives. At times gently censorious and insistent, his embodiment of impartiality will be the template of their own institution of morality as a balance of privileges and responsibilities. We begrudge the fact that Jojo has to skip recess to complete his coloring-in assignment. Then we realize the incident is the occasion for a lesson of another sort--a lesson about keeping promises and not indefinitely postponing duties. Jojo pleads for more time: pledging to complete his work on some future school day. But “Monsieur” won’t be put off, rejoining that “today is such a day” and must be seized. That lesson, relearned throughout one’s life, is here shown with all the immediacy of the original either-or. Keeping promises as the essence of character (prudence) and social justice (duty).  

Credulity is the virtue of children. Part of their openness to the world, it is what makes them so vulnerable. It is as such children that Christ instructed us to approach. Their opposites are not so much adults as doubters. Children are ready to believe, accept and to trust. The very inclinations that make their lives so dangerous, our world being what it is, and so open to instruction. An openness that is the precondition of all revelation. 

The process whereby the world is made safe is the same as the process that turns trust into suspicion, and love into hatred. The abandonment of fear (doubt) is the prerequisite for life in the “Kingdom” (having faith). It is also that which renders the hardened again pliant, the barren fecund.

If children are gullible, they are also honest, crying out spontaneously with excitement, indignation and pain. When Jojo gets knocked down by Johann he bursts into tears with a mixture of anger and hurt, scurrying off to sit under a fir tree. The others gather around, alarmed by his distress, and convince him to bring the matter to the attention of “Monsieur,” judge and protector, that he might set things right. The adjudicator calls them all before him, encourages full disclosure and confession; the asking and granting of forgiveness, and adjourns the impromptu meeting. Absolved and appeased,the children return to play in the sleet as Jojo’s face, realigning its features to reflect the restoration of order, signals the beginning of the end of his indignity. 

Montaigne observed that “children’s plays are not sports, and should be regarded as their most serious actions,” though he cannot have been the first to observe the proverbial earnestness of children at play. The quality of quiet concentration is abundantly on display in this film, which curiously has little time for the frolicking of children, the endless search for disport and amusement which the popular imagination has come to associate with childhood. That image of childhood is likely a distortion of certain cultural traditions rather than a quality observable through-out history and cross-culturally. Specifically, of cultures addicted to diversion and beholden to a mass-media-market that supports itself by awakening non-existent consumption needs and turning adults into distracted children.

The children in To Be and to Have are not so much somber as more or less successfully focused from moment to moment. It will have become abundantly clear to them that the acquisition of skills is mostly a matter of calming the mind (detaching from impulse and affect) and directing the ray of in- and attention on the subject to be mastered.  These are not the carefree consumers of popular culture, but the dramatis personae of life’s series of existential crises. Every change of circumstance requiring growth and the shedding of protective membranes is a challenge to the institution of the self: to its boundaries and arsenal of adaptive strategies.  After “Monsieur” has revealed his impending departure and his student’s future in a middle-school, the ungainly and uncommunicative Nathalie, gently confronted with her incommmunicativeness, quietly sobs beside her teacher. The volatile and enfeeblement-prone Olivier who can barely divest himself of a complete sentence in the massivity of his affective saturation, breaks into tears as he discloses that his sick father must have his larynx removed. These tragedies, broadcast to the world by accident, become our own. In those moments of empathic resonance, delivered of our sense of voyeurism, we embrace something like solidarity, our own unhealable wounds bleeding in synchrony.

As the children are introduced to the world of a middle school, their own classroom finds itself hosting a contingent of toddlers. Among them a diminutive lad (Valentin) with a round head and doll-like features ill at ease in the strange surroundings. The class rises to greet its guests as Valentin, fingers in mouth, disappears to the back of the room. Monsieur introduces the students to each other. Valentin too, retrieved from hiding, comes to stand with hands behind his back, his mouth open, gazing about the room as if looking for someone. Encouraged to “faire des jeux” with the others, Valentin remains distracted by the non-presence. The absence of his most significant other and foil seems to him the most conspicuous thing of all. Finally, his hoarse voice constricting, he calls for “mama” and signals alarm. Monsieur does his best to circumvent the inevitable, reassuring him that “mama” has just gone away for a little while and will soon return.  The child is picked up, coddled, cajoled, has the example of his contentedly playing sister pointed out to him. It seems nothing can substitute: “I want to see her,” he pleads. Soothing words are not enough to refute the indications of reality or derail the mounting desperation that finally vents itself in heart-rending cries for the maternal matrix. The older boys hide their faces and smirk, having long ago acquired the self-soothing techniques that inhibit the eruption of such states of emergency; such shameful displays of savage helplessness.

On the final day the students surround their revered teacher, role-model and ally on their journey into civil society. Flocking about his kneeling figure, they take turns exchanging the ritual kiss on both cheeks in an intriguing convergence of formality and intimacy, the avuncular and the fraternal. As they depart in confident expectation of summer vacation, Monsieur stands musing in the midst of his own autumn.

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