The Class (Entre les murs) first published by Film4
Summary: In Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or winning drama, a Parisian teacher is constantly challenged by his multi-cultural class.
Review: From Stand and Deliver (1988) to Dead Poets Society (1989) to Dangerous Minds (1995), the classrooms of the Hollywood mainstream have typically been ruled by lone heroes who, through sheer maverick spirit and alchemical inspiration, lead their errant students to triumph against all odds. French cinema, however, has tended towards altogether more understated, and less fanciful, representations of the educative process.
Nicolas Philibert’s lyrical documentary Être et Avoir (2002) set the template – and now The Class, directed by Laurent Cantet (Time Out, Heading South), shows a school setting where progress, if it is made at all, comes in small steps, where dramas emerge from believable situations, and where staff and students alike seem all too real. Best of all, the central teacher, while certainly capable of the odd low-key miracle, is sinner as much as saint.
The Class opens with an image of teacher François, shot so close that his surroundings are difficult to make out, draining his morning coffee and heading across the road to greet a colleague. Both are on their way into Françoise Dolto Junior High, in Paris’ economically depressed 20th arrondissement, for the beginning of another school year.
This is the only glimpse that we shall get of the outside world, the rest of the film being set, in keeping with its original French title Entre les murs (or ‘Between the Walls’), entirely inside the school’s grounds, and largely within the confines of a single classroom – but that is not to say that The Class suffers in any way from claustrophobia or tunnel vision. On the contrary, this school is a microcosm of France, if not of the world, where different cultures, ethnicities, genders, generations and socio-economic strata all bump and grind to the beat of adolescence.
As a teacher of French to a varied class of 24 pupils, François treads a fine line every day. On the one hand, he plays Socratic midwife to his young wards’ nascent individuality and self-expression, while on the other he is responsible for maintaining discipline and ensuring that all play by the rules. He must keep the bright and the behind equally engaged. And he must come down to his pupils’ level while trying to lift them above it. Over the course of a year, there will be clashes and confrontations, successes and failures, all in the service of a society whose values are always being questioned even as they are upheld.
The naturalism of The Class is a direct result of both its genesis and its production. The screenplay is adapted by Cantet, Robin Campillo and François Bégaudeau from the 2006 novel by Bégaudeau, drawn from his own experiences as an actual inner-city teacher – and he also plays François himself (although with a different surname from his own), guiding an ensemble of authentic Dolto High pupils (most of whom keep their real names) through their half-scripted half-improvised scenes very much as a teacher would conduct a rowdy class. The rest of the staff and most of the parents are also the genuine article, playing what is merely a fictionalised extension of themselves, while the cameras appear to be eavesdropping on a slice of real life, growing pains and all.
Not that The Class lacks craft. On the contrary, it is rippling with thematic heft and brimming with structural symmetries. If François endlessly pushes and challenges the teens in his care, they certainly respond in kind. If in the film’s first half, François requires the members of his class to pen impressionistic self-portraits which include experiences that have caused them shame, in the second half he will himself be forced to write a report in which he must reluctantly confess his own guilty part in a complex incident. If François impresses upon his pupils the importance of acquiring a finely attuned intuition for judging register, later his own linguistic judgements will fail him miserably. And if François ends up attending disciplinary proceedings for one of his students, in a way he too will be on trial (even if the potential consequences for the teacher may be somewhat less life-changing than those for his pupil).
Although The Class is disarmingly frank about both the merits and the shortcomings of François’ teaching methods as he struggles to steer his pupils towards learning, the film’s main focus is on the scholastic system as a whole. Here classroom entanglements are juxtaposed to staffroom debates, playground tussles, parent-teacher meetings and disciplinary hearings, and all these confrontations illustrate the workings of a system that is designed to produce educated and integrated members of society, but that occasionally overlooks, or even excludes, those under its aegis.
Over the nine-month period covered by the film, we see some pupils subtly gestating into young adults, while others merely stand still. A picture also emerges of teachers who, for all the differences in their approach to their students, are united by an earnest idealism that somehow survives the daily grind – but at the same time we might notice that the teachers, in contrast to their student body, are all white. Such dissonances and inequalities raise important questions about the nature of power, politics and inclusion – questions which Cantet wisely leaves viewers to answer for themselves, so that, once the end credits have rolled, the film’s nuanced dialectic may well be carried on beyond the cinema and into the world outside. This is, after all, an ongoing conversation about how we all become who we are.
Combining real intellectual and political engagement with credible performances and drama at its most gripping, Cantet’s film was unanimously awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2008, and with good reason. To see it is to be given a masterclass in the full potential of spare, taut filmmaking.
Verdict: Thanks to its low-key naturalism, and its seriousness of purpose tempered with occasional fly-on-the-wall humour, even those sitting in the back row will find themselves giving The Class their full and rapt attention.
strap: Laurent Cantet’s docudrama uses an inner city teaching room as a microcosm of tensions in French society
© Anton Bitel