Être et avoir

Nothing feels longer than a school year at the start of September.

Nicolas Philibert’s gently attentive documentary follows the duration of that strangely dilated measure of time as it passes in a one-classroom school in the French Alps.

The school’s single, mixed-age class is made up of irresistibly charming kids, whose progression we follow over just one, tantalising year.

Some will go on to middle school, others will move to another valley, and others will return next year. But we know that this ensemble – the film’s cast of characters – has a poignantly limited life.

At the heart of this group – and the heart of the film – is their practically saint-like teacher, Mr Lopez.

The son of farm labourers, Mr Lopez is unmistakably fulfilling a vocation. He guides the children with a sure but gentle hand, drawing upon a well of patience that’s nothing short of miraculous.

However saccharine this premise might sound, Être et avoir gracefully avoids any temptation of sentimentalism.

The film is laced with as many of the complex hardships and sadnesses of childhood as it is with its joys and consolations. Perceptively shot scenes of rural life also ground us in particular, material reality. This is no fairy tale. 

Être and avoir – to be and to have – are the first verbs you learn to conjugate in French: markers of the simplest and earliest lessons we are taught.

But they also refer to the essential, persistently mysterious fundamentals of life – being and having. With its unapologetic simplicity, Philibert’s film bypasses obscuring complications to attune itself to the largest questions of existence – how we situate ourselves within it; how we hold it, and it us.

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