The setting is a one-room schoolhouse, which is momentarily unoccupied except for a pair of turtles. Wet snow rattling against the window reminds you of the bracing gray bluster of the day outside. Snow-laden evergreens are shrugging their branches in the wind, like sighing giants; while inside, the turtles labor with comic solemnity across the floor, beneath sun-colored furniture that will soon be bouncing with children.
The setting is the first-class cabin of an airplane, which is entirely filled with dozing passengers. Cocooned in white blankets, they lie silent in a dark and droning space that might as well not even have an outside. Video screens flash in identical rows before the sleepers, as if transmitting their collective dream: a scene of flaming chaos.
Let’s hear it for French cinema, which has tossed up these exemplary moments in a pair of remarkable new releases: To Be and to Have by Nicolas Philibert and demonlover by Olivier Assayas. The first takes the form of a documentary and has the feel of an elegiac romance. The second takes the form of a feature and has the feel of a critical essay, or a delirious thriller, or maybe a critical delirium.
More to the point, the first deals with a rural community, which Philibert portrays as enduring, if not timeless. The second deals with the nowhereland of international business and the Internet, which Assayas portrays as existing in hypermodern, calamitous flux. Most of us live somewhere between these extremes–and we’re lucky to have two such terrific movies to help us plot our location.
Let me introduce To Be and to Have through understatement, which is the method Philibert slyly practices. His film is a study of Georges Lopez, a veteran schoolteacher in the Auvergne region, and the dozen students he nurtured in his last year before retirement. To be more precise: Lopez nurtured thirteen students of all ages, all at the same time, teaching them every subject in the curriculum and never once raising his voice. Anybody who has handled even two kids, for as little as two hours, will look upon Lopez with awe; and Philibert’s film deserves a similar respect, since it shares this man’s virtue of being patiently, sympathetically tuned in.
What you learn by watching Lopez is simple enough: The man could be unfailingly attentive because he loved all of these children, from the grimiest, most woolgathering 4-year-old–the natural comedian of the picture, always playing to the camera–to the most awkward, underachieving near-adolescent, who was about to enter the regional middle school on a split decision. He loved them; he loved his work with them; and he loved having Philibert’s crew in the classroom, since the filmmakers helped him savor the final months of his career. What you feel with Lopez, though, is anything but simple. It’s nothing less than the deep paradox of time, which plods forward, turtlelike, for every individual and yet for the community revolves like the seasons.
Philibert begins with the circle: images of men and boys herding cattle in the snow, to the chiming of a distant bell. Before he gets to anything so newfangled as pedagogy, he wants to look at the landscape, the weather, the motions of rural labor. These are subjects to which he will periodically return throughout the film, often accompanying them with an airy, perpetual-motion musical score by Philippe Hersant, so that he evokes the turning of the year. The gesture seems reminiscent of an older documentary: Georges Rouquier’s classic film on rural French life, Farrebique. But whereas Rouquier sought to reassure with poetry–his film, made in the aftermath of World War II, showed the French that their earth still flourished–Philibert wants to stimulate with clear, direct prose. Yes, spring follows winter, and one generation succeeds the next–but you still need to know how to spell properly. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a few years to learn how, under the calm eye of a Georges Lopez.
He is a trim man, long-faced, bespectacled and bearded, who generally comes to work in a turtleneck and blue jeans. For the most part, Philibert presents you with direct views of him and his students, in the manner of a Frederick Wiseman documentary, though without Wiseman’s strenuous probity, his effect of willing events into existence through the sheer intensity of his gaze. Philibert is more relaxed, more playful; he even allows himself an offscreen voice at a key moment, when he questions Lopez about his family and his career. This is the point when To Be and to Have breaks definitively out of the rural cycle–when Lopez, speaking with his characteristic transparency, explains that he pursued an education because he didn’t want to follow his father into farm labor. “My father always said,” Lopez remarks, “that it’s a long way to the ground. He knew what he was talking about.” Not only did Lopez free himself from backbreaking work, he also spent most of his adult life offering others the potential to make that same escape.
You might even say that the mere act of acquiring school knowledge is an escape–and not an easy one. Although Lopez is the star of To Be and to Have, the children are its real heroes, who struggle every day to overcome obstacles that most of us grown-ups have forgotten. You see the pupils cope with the befuddlement of math homework, the uncertainty of dictation, the awkwardness of cooking (just watch the 4-year-olds crack eggs), the confusions of friendship. Nobody has an “Aha!” moment; and yet there’s drama, some of it very funny, written on the children’s faces, as they progress through the months of unsteady transformation that Philibert has compacted into this film.
To Be and to Have is extraordinary for its faith that what the pupils experience really is a progress–no matter that the seasons change and the teacher steps into twilight. Clear-eyed in its lyricism, unsentimental in its vision of how Lopez and his students got their job done, To Be and to Have has the distinction of putting the elemental back into elementary education.
Once you’ve been educated, of course, you run the risk of turning into one of the people in Assayas’s demonlover. These characters, all of them first-class-cabin corporate functionaries, have no connection to a fixed place, or physical labor, or anything that the rest of the world would term struggle; and so, as if in compensation, their imaginations produce and feed upon extremity: rape, torture, kidnapping, murder. To quote Assayas’s cinematographer Denis Lenoir, who did such astonishing, innovative work on the film, demonlover is fundamentally about “how white middle-class businesspeople–because they want to be able to afford Hermès luggage–find themselves with no moral scruples whatsoever.”
The story, in brief, concerns a dirty, underhanded corporate competition to gain Internet distribution rights to the latest generation of Japanese animated pornography. Diane (Connie Nielsen) ostensibly works for the French company that is in line to get the contract; but she’s secretly a spy for another group. Meanwhile, the French may either be partnering with or vying against an American firm represented by Elaine (Gina Gershon). The relationship between the two sides isn’t clear; nor is it certain whether the French company’s secretary, Elise (Chloë Sevigny), is acting for or against Diane. Most puzzling of all are the ties between all these forces and the Hellfire Club, an illegal online service that allows you to type your sadistic fantasies into a computer and then see them performed, in real time, on a real woman.
All this is dire enough; but what makes demonlover truly fascinating is the metamorphosis it works on Diane, changing her from a perpetrator of these intrigues into one of their objects. Crucial to this transformation is Assayas’s casting of Connie Nielsen, an actress best known for her roles in Gladiator, One-Hour Photo and Mission to Mars. She is an impeccably competent performer who has, to date, shown no personality whatever; and so she is an ideal choice for Diane, though a sadistic one, since Assayas can dress her up any way he likes, as a businesswoman, a cat burglar (as in his Irma Vep), a sexual adventuress or a lookalike for Diana Rigg in The Avengers. Did a live woman morph into these roles, or is Nielsen the next generation of Japanese animation? Your suspicion that she’s just pixels–or is doomed to be reduced to them–gains strength from her being positioned between Gershon and Sevigny: the first so knowingly, self-amusedly trashy, the second so wised-up and fierce, and both far more substantial than Nielsen could ever be.
Assayas’s use of Nielsen, and his deliberately jolting leaps from plot to plot, have prompted some critics to liken demonlover to a video game. I think François Ozon’s Swimming Pool might make a more instructive comparison. Like Swimming Pool, demonlover is a coolly elegant movie (French at heart, mostly English in language) about the lurid workings of the moneyed imagination; and like Swimming Pool, it makes itself into the prime example of its own subject matter. But Ozon’s film is lurid and nothing more; it’s a slow-moving Russ Meyer movie, made socially acceptable by the addition of a little red wine and pâté. Assayas, being genuinely smart, has done something far more dangerous. Rather than confine himself within the safe realm of psychology and national stereotypes, he has plunged into the midst of the corporate image-peddlers.
As shown in demonlover, they are not a pretty sight; and Assayas, for all his practiced detachment, comes at them like Buñuel wielding a straight razor.
Screening Schedule: From September 25 through October 5, the Museum of Modern Art will present the refreshingly dialogic documentaries of Heddy Honigmann at its Gramercy Theatre. Honigmann will be showing the premiere of her latest film, Dame la Mano (Give Me Your Hand), a closeup look at a Cuban rumba club in Union City, New Jersey, along with ten other works. For information on the MoMA series: (212) 777-4900, or www.moma.org. A more compact version of the retrospective will also be on view at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, October 1-24. For information: (510) 642-5249 or www.bampfa.berkeley.edu.