Class, The (Entre les murs) (France, 2008)

February 17, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Class, The (Entre les murs) Poster

The average American production about teachers and students invariably turns into an inspirational melodrama in which some great life lesson is imparted. All of these movies - from Dead Poets Society to Mr. Holland's Opus to Dangerous Minds to Freedom Writers - have their hearts in the right places and their roots in Goodbye Mr. Chips, but they exist within the safe confines of an educational system circumscribed by motion picture formulas. Laurent Cantet's The Class may transpire in a familiar setting - an upper junior high school classroom - but the way in which the story unfolds is anything but conventional.

Strictly speaking, this is not a documentary, although it contains more reality and truth than last year's patently artificial American Teen. The movie uses non-professional actors and a partly improvised script to explore what happens in a real classroom over the course of a school year. The teacher, played by François Bégaudeau (upon whose semi-autobiographical book this is based), is not a demigod whose compelling oration turns around the lives of his students. He's a hard-working professional who believes in dialogue with the kids in his class but who often feels the pinch of frustration when his lessons are met with sarcasm, laziness, and a lack of respect.

Cantet's camera provides us with a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the classroom. Some of the lessons, such as one about self-portraits and another about verb conjugation, unfold almost in real time, allowing us to observe the diverse reactions of the students: those who attend to the teacher, those who snicker behind his back, and those who openly defy him. There's a tremendous amount of dramatic tension in these seemingly normal situations as the teacher, M. Marin, and several of his most outspoken students seem headed for an inevitable conflict.

One thing that surprised me a little about The Class is the universality of the classroom experience represented here. The movie takes place in a school in Paris but could just as easily transpire in any North American urban setting: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto. There's something about the rebelliousness of youth (all of the students are between ages 13 and 15) that transcends cultural and national borders. While watching The Class, I was in part transported back to my days in 8th and 9th grades and, while things were more tame where I received an education, this is the first film in which there has been such a strong sense of authenticity - as if the years had been peeled back. M. Marin is like many teachers I had: hard-working, genuinely concerned about the students, but unable to make any kind of difference with many of them.

Considering the strength of performances given by the 25-or-so teenage actors portraying the students, it's amazing that none of them have previous experience. While many function primarily as background players, several have storylines. There's tough guy Souleymane (Franck Keita), whose home issues may in part be responsible for his confrontational attitude in class. Through his self-portrait, his means of expression causes M. Marin to have hope for him, but he is widely viewed by the other teachers as a bad seed who may be beyond redemption. Khoumba (Rachel Régulier) is a student who was in M. Marin's class the previous year but whose attitude has changed over the summer. Now, she's sullen and angry, and believes she is not being shown respect. Wey (Wey Huang) is one of the class' most intelligent students, but his mother is facing deportation for being an illegal immigrant.

Some storylines in The Class are resolved; others are not. The film is less about providing absolute closure than it is about offering the most detailed snapshot possible of a contained span of time. The movie is talky, with many more minutes of screen time devoted to mundane conversations than one would likely find in a similar Hollywood treatment. And, while M. Marin is unquestionably the main character, we learn little about him beyond the bounds of his profession. That's not to say he isn't well-developed, but the movie isn't interested in who he is beyond the walls of the school. He is François Marin, Teacher. Everything we need to see and know about him - his compassion, his frustration, his hopes, his reality - are encompassed by that simple single-word definition of who he is.

If nothing else, The Class has convinced me that I would be a failure as a teacher. I lack the resolve and patience to impart learning while imposing discipline in a classroom that has become a wasp's nest. The Class won the Palme d'Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival (and has been nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category), but it is not without its critics, some of whom are within the educational system. Yet, as disheartening as it may seem to some, the film's message is honest. Education is no longer a matter of writing things on a chalkboard, assigning homework, and grading tests. It requires interaction and activities that will challenge students, and the ability to overcome the frustration incumbent in the position. Those looking for answers to many of the most pressing junior high student/teacher issues won't find them here. What they will discover is a well-dramatized list of many of the most vexing questions.

Class, The (Entre les murs) (France, 2008)

Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: 2009-02-13
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1