French somnambulence

Thoughtful lessons put us to sleep.

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This documentary — about a one-room schoolhouse in rural France and the dedicated teacher who tends to the children there — arrived with such widespread advance praise that I feel a little guilty about not warming up to it. Part of the problem for me was director Nicolas Philibert’s somnambulistic pacing and his alternating of undeniably beautiful scenes of the countryside with those of the teacher, Georges Lopez, quietly drilling his students in math and grammar. As he moves between the two groups of children — the little ones, who are just learning to count, and the older ones, who are doing timetables and some geometry — the tedium of the exercises becomes tedious to watch.

I also had mixed feelings about monsieur Lopez, whose generally placid demeanor doesn’t make him any less of a martinet. One child who forgets to call him “sir” is asked the same question repeatedly, until he remembers to include the tribute. And when he has little heart-to-heart talks with his students he does most of the talking (in one case, all of the talking). I was never convinced that he was getting through to them or past his own idea of what they may be thinking.

Still, I feel like a puppy kicker — the children are so charming, after all, and how can one not be inspired and moved by the story of a dedicated teacher? Perhaps it has something to do with my own lingering issues with authority figures. Which would explain why my favorite moment in the film was when one of the younger children says, philosophically, “When we get older, we get to order the children around.”

 

In French with subtitles. Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday-Sunday, Dec. 5-7. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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