Film Review: To Be and To Have

November 7, 2011

The widely hailed documentary about a French teacher and his elementary class is a paean to conformity, says reviewer Maxine Phillips.

It sounded like a perfect movie for our family: To Be and To Have, a widely hailed French documentary by Nicolas Philibert that follows a veteran teacher through seven months in a one-room school in rural France. My educator husband had been intrigued by David Denby's description in the New Yorker of the film as "a deeply satisfying aesthetic and pedagogic experience." Because it takes place in an elementary school, I, the former French major, and our daughter, the second-year French student, hoped we wouldn't have to read subtitles.

 
Well, the French was understandable, the fly on the wall camera work effective, the children enchanting, and the countryside beautiful. But as a "deeply satisfying. . . pedagogic experience," it failed. We wondered if we had seen the same film that A.O. Scott, in the New York Times, called a "portrait of an artist."
 
The film won awards in France and opened commercially to enthusiastic reviews here. Although some reviewers have faulted the cinematography and lack of dramatic tension, the few doubts were lost in a chorus of praise, such as Charles Taylor's comment in Salon.com that it was about "teaching as a form of love." Taylor saw the "basic values of civilization: reason, tolerance, learning, cooperation, and comradeship" being taught in the classroom.
 
What did we see? The camera maintains a child's eye view as it focuses on teacher Georges Lopez, a calm, pervasive presence among the thirteen students who range in age from three to eleven years old. But the claustrophobia it evoked made us remember those days of being small, powerless, and at the mercy of forces we didn't understand, groping for knowledge beyond our reach, subject to the scorn of our peers, our natural ebullience tamed as we learned to conform to what the all-powerful (albeit kindly) teacher wanted.
 
The film opens with a herd of cattle being driven in a snowstorm. We're in rural France, the psychological home of Madame Bovary, who longed to escape its stultifying confines. The image of everyone herded in the same direction carries over into the classroom. Lopez, who enjoys the luxury of a small, multi-age class and what look like modern furnishings (although we never see a computer, or a book, for that matter), runs a tight ship. His kindergartners practice their handwriting and then subject each other to group criticism. When a four year old won't finish an art project that consists of coloring within the lines, he is not allowed to go out to recess.
 
Although the camera glances at what looks like a reading area (we never see the whole classroom the way an adult would, only portions, as children would), there is no scene of Lopez reading to anyone or of older children reading to younger ones.
We see parents and relatives struggling to help students with simple math and unable to do so. During a parent-teacher conference, a mother says plaintively of the math her daughter brings home, "It's not what I learned." Surely, in a community where perhaps eight or nine families supply the entire student body, Lopez might have offered one evening to acquaint them with his lesson plans.
We see Lopez reading dictation to the older students. This method of reading a passage that the students must copy in order to drill them on spelling and punctuation is time-honored in France. Even Lopez sighs as he notes that he's been reading such paragraphs for 35 years.
 
And we feel, as Lopez gently but firmly leads his students through the drills, the weight of tradition, of inevitability of life within one's ascribed social status.
Why have American viewers been so enthusiastic about a paean to conformity? In France, the film is the highest grossing documentary ever, and only a few voices have asked whether, when French classrooms are overcrowded, challenged by an influx of immigrants, and teachers are underpaid and undervalued, such a film isn't a way for the public to avoid tough questions about educational policy. The United States, like France, has a right-wing government hostile to innovation in education. The classroom exists as if it had no links to an outside world, other than a field trip to the large, impersonal middle school the older students will soon attend. And it may be the viewer's knowledge of the world outside that makes this film, with its simplicity and its homogeneous (save for one Asian-origin girl) student body so appealing.
 
Philibert has said that his own school experiences were unhappy, and that only in making this movie did he experience pleasure in a classroom. Is this why the film has captivated so many of the people who have seen and reviewed it? Maybe viewers had such painful school experiences that the sight of a caring teacher like Lopez blinded them to the limitations of his approach.
 
Lopez's concern for his students and attention to his work are obvious. And I hope that in the 598 hours of film that we didn't see, there were moments of creativity. But the order and calm that Lopez projected obviously struck a reactionary chord.
Have the theories and practice of progressive education been so marginalized that reviewers can't imagine a better educational setting than a return to an idealized, lost way of life? In a "back to basics" climate, is it reassuring to see hierarchical order restored? A place for everything and everything in its place. Teachers in control. Children on track and tracked. Parents showing respect, not thinking of themselves as partners in their children's education.
 
After the first shot of cattle, followed by a staged shot of escaped turtles, there's no mess in Lopez's classroom. He's there to impose society's rules. (A scene in which he "mediates" a dispute with two boys is an improvement over what happens in many classrooms but is not recognizable as a mediation by ESR standards.) And this oasis, in which we never see a child experience joy in learning, looks like a utopia.
 
The movie is a tour de force that holds your attention for the equivalent of watching grass grow. I only wish we might have seen more flowers bloom.
 

This review originally appeared in the September-October 2003 issue of ESR Metro's newsletter Action News. For information about receiving the newsletter, click here.