Sunday, January 28, 2007

You Either Have It or You Don't

I have begun to worry if I am a completely hard-hearted person for finding Nicolas Philibert's celebrated and universally loved documentary Être et avoir to be dull and, at times, annoying. The account of a village elementary school run by a single schoolmaster nearing retirement, a Mr Georges Lopez, the film was a huge hit on its release five years ago and was praised for the precision of its observations and the beauty of its filming. Having eventually seen it I can agree that Philibert has a good documentary eye and that his exteriors, at least, are impressive but my big problem with it starts from the very first interior, all garishly lit, to look like a fiction film effectively. Perhaps Philibert had one eye on the box office at the time.

In addition to this the film seems to be a romanticised view of school and childhood that has always been very popular in French cinema, fuelling such films as the two versions of Les Choristes, Louis Malle's Au Revoir les enfants, the better films of Claude Miller, such as La Meilleure facon de marcher and La Classe de neige, and which has also influenced the maddening popularity of that woman-child pipsqueak Amélie Poulain. Philibert, in the DVD notes, claims that he wanted to avoid nostalgia in the film, but if he thought he managed that, well maybe he needs a bit more distance from it. Overall the biggest problem I had with it was the fact that it was just a bit too dull. And I generally lap documentaries of this sort up. And M. Lopez then took the filmmakers to court after the film's success claiming a share in the profits because his teaching methods were supposedly part of the conception. The court dismissed his case, rightly judging that he was having a laugh.