This year's series delivers the usual blend of eclectic and absorbing work, from a brilliant, heartbreaking documentary about the intimate relationship between a rural schoolteacher and his young pupils in To Be and To Have to a wonderful treat from early French film, the jaunty 1937 Pepe Le Moko starring Jean Gabin as a debonair French gangster.
There has been a small subgenre of French films devoted to the secret lives of children, from Francois Truffaut's effervescent 1976 classic Small Change to Bertrand Tavernier's astounding film It All Starts Today about how a grim French economy trickles down to a rural kindergarten (shown in last year's French Film Today series).
To Be and To Have (March 8) combines elements of both of those films. In Nicolas Philibert's (In the Land of the Deaf) deceptively simple, straightforward terms, this documentary tells a story with profound social and philosophical ripples. Its focus is the calm, patient teacher Georges Lopez, who gently commands a rural farm community classroom of children from kindergarten to middle school age. Like Tavernier's film, To Be has a grave message about our children as a microcosm of our society and the classroom as the arena where we prove our values and commitment.
This exceptionally moving film shows how these children profit from Lopez's considerate, encouraging style and individual attention. When he tells them of his plan to retire after a 35-year teaching career, you can see from their expressions that their delicate insides have crumbled like porcelain at the thought of a world without this teacher in it.
Many will remember the air of enchantment and possibility that dominated certain classrooms presided over by special teachers like Lopez. Philibert beautifully contrasts the serenity and civility of the school with the grubbier, routine extracurricular lives of the students going over their homework with their weary parents or doing their farm chores. The children, who go through heartbreaking ordeals of parental illness and personal disabilities, reward Lopez with a heart-wrenching trust and devotion that illustrates the highest ideal of not only teaching but of life -- to express a hope and belief in society through the example of helping one child to grow.
From Renoir to Godard to Tavernier, French cinema has often displayed a social awareness of the interconnectedness of individual lives and a healthy or sick society. But just as often, the French are revered for crafting films of incomparable wit and charm, as in the sublime Pepe Le Moko (March 15).
The recently restored film opens with an amazing breakdown of the complex layout of the serpentine roads and ample vice in the Arab quarter of Algiers, the Casbah. The French police shake their heads at the impossibility of ever capturing the district's beloved, charismatic master thief, Pepe Le Moko (Jean Gabin), so they devise a plan to smoke him out.
With the elegance of Cary Grant glossed with a distinctly French je ne sais quo, Gabin's sexy, nonchalant crook worries less about being captured than he does about seducing the beautiful Parisian tourist Gaby (Mireille Balin), who's slumming in the dangerous grotto. Pepe is filled with some of the most erotic glances between two people in the history of cinema, and Balin is a serene, glowing seductress of Dietrich dimensions.
But Gaby (Balin) is not only a vision of unattainable sexual allure. For Pepe she represents a world he can never return to. Like the Casbah's other exiled Parisians who pine for their fabled city, Pepe is consumed with blinding, gnawing homesickness for a country embodied in this glamorous woman dripping diamonds and excitement and escape.
The subdued thrills of Pepe are rendered epic and outsized in the 1997 modern swashbuckling adventure On Guard! (March 22). Robustly entertaining, the film offers a winking treatment of Three Musketeer-style historical adventure cliches of aristocrats-masquerading-as-commoners. Philippe de Broca's spicy, infectiously fun adaptation of Paul Feval's 1857 serial novel stars Daniel Auteuil as a both goofy and heroic 17th-century master swordsman who protects the female heir to a huge fortune (Marie Gillain) from the sniveling, greedy relation Gonzague (Fabrice Luchini) trying to murder all rivals.
Though it has a cerebral impact that outweighs its dour mood, I'm Going Home (March 29) is probably the least likely crowd pleaser on the French Film bill. After the sudden deaths of his son, daughter-in-law and wife in a car accident, renowned stage actor Gilbert Valence (Michel Piccoli) appears to carry on raising his orphaned 12-year-old grandson and pursuing various acting assignments. But 93-year-old Portuguese-born director Manoel de Oliveira's film suggests that despair can strike with an imprecise and surprising vengeance when the apparent comfort of routine proves a shaky denial of the magnitude of grief.
But de Oliveira's film offers definite rewards for patient viewers, just one in a splendid series of diverse French cinema.