Dir: Laurent Cantet. France. 2008. 128mins.
Laurent Cantet’s wildly diverse oeuvre takes another turn with this absorbing improvised docu-drama revolving around teacher-pupil relationships in a school classroom and shot using real teachers and students from a Paris school over the course of a school year. The film focuses tightly on the dynamics and concerns of the classroom, never straying into details of the lives of kids or adults outside. Yet even though it takes place entirely ‘entre les murs’, it offers a rich microcosm of today’s multi-ethnic French population and fascinating insights into the complicated dilemmas and misunderstandings which teaching - and indeed learning - can entail.
The film demands that the viewer pay attention to long talkative sequences in the classroom which may be offputting to some, although the characters of the kids are so colourful as to render all these sequences humorous and lively. The universal themes of education could help sales outside France, and while it will never be more than an arthouse title, it could galvanize discussion in the press wherever it is released on the challenges of educating pupils from underprivileged immigrant backgrounds.
Cantet worked with co-screenwriter Robin Campillo and teacher Francois Begaudeau, who plays the teacher himself and whose book inspired the film, to come up with a backbone for the situations in the film, then used real 14 and 15 year-old students to create characters before improvising the classroom scenes. Although the events that happen are based on true-life incidents, the film is fiction, not documentary, and the schoolkids are acting roles.
The Class starts at the beginning of the school year and ends at the end. Francois (Begaudeau) is a sympathetic French teacher in a school in a tough Paris neighbourhood who encourages a respectful attitude in his pupils and works hard to overcome the disruptive nature, sassy attitude and lack of discipline which many of them possess.
We quickly get to know the students - a smart Chinese immigrant (illegal, as it turns out) called Wei (Wei Huang), a troubled boy from Mali called Souleymane (Keita), the ballsy and loud-mouthed Esmerelda (Ouertani), the smart, sulky black girl Khoumba (Regulier), a brooding Caribbean boy expelled from his previous school called Carl (Nanor) and others.
The classes are lively and vocal, and Francois sometimes struggles to keep control in the face of such big personalities, but he has the power to keep them interested in words, language and verb tenses (notably the imperfect subjunctive, which inspires derision from the class). He is also talented at diffusing situations in which he is mocked, like when Souleymane asks if he is gay.
Each of the teachers, whom we see in the staff room, has his or her own frustrations dealing with the children, one promoting rigid discipline, most opting for relaxation of strict rules and a more compassionate approach.
As the year goes on, problems emerge in the class. Francois clashes with Khoumba who, believing herself victimized, refuses to read aloud the final diary entry in The Diary Of Anne Frank and writes him a long essay about his failure to respect her.
But as the film progresses, the drama begins to revolve around Souleymane whose unruly classroom behaviour is becoming harder to manage. When Esmerelda and another girl called Louise report back to Souleymane that Francois called him ‘limited’ at a staff meeting where they were student reps, he explodes with rage and tries to attack Francois before storming out of the classroom. A disciplinary hearing is called which could lead to his expulsion.
The Souleymane sequences which make for much of the film’s second hour are an insight into the complex nature of school politics, since students, parents and teachers alike all have opinions about the turn of events. The situation is complicated by complaints made by Esmerelda and Louise to the school counselor that Francois has called them ‘skanks’ (‘pedasses’). The debates on screen are made all the more gripping by the fact that, like the teachers, the audience doesn’t know much about Souleymane’s homelife or his background other than a vague implication that he could be sent home to Mali if he is expelled.
Cantet refuses to judge the behaviour of any of the teachers or students here, presenting the classroom situations objectively with all the ethical and social baggage they entail. The technique is never less than enthralling and The Class is as fluid and thought-provoking as contemporary realist cinema can get.
One potential audience sector who will embrace the film is teachers. It serves to illustrate definitively that teaching is one of society’s toughest professions.
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France 2 Cinema
Memento Films International
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From the novel Entre Les Murs by Begaudeau