Class, The (Entre les murs) (2008): Cantet’s Cannes Fest Winner

Laurent Cantet’s The Class, which deservedly won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Fest, is an artistically intriguing and sociological significant docu drama about the state of the French educational system as reflected in one Parisian school, observed in detail over the course of a year.

Sony Pictures Classics will release the film in the U.S. in December, and hopefully, with strong critical support, it will do better than Cantet’s former films.

The film’s timely issues makes it most suitable for showings in various educational associations, to teachers, students and their parents.

Serving as a microcosm of the multi-racial, multi-national French society today, “The Class” is an absorbing film whose relevancy goes beyond this particular school and the French educational system. Centering on the psycho-social dynamics between teacher and students in one classroom, the film seldom leaves the place, which explains why the French title, “Entre les murs,” is better and more accurate (it translates into “Between the Walls”).

A lengthy tracking shot of the teacher taking his last cup of coffe, and walks down the street on his way to school in the first day of classes, opens the film.  However, afterwards, only occasionally, does the camera track the teachers outside their classrooms during breaks, or the students in the playground.

Through the richly detailed interaction between one teacher and his varied students, the film raises interesting philosophical and pragmatic issues about methods of instruction, the values of education, the role of students and parents in determining the contents of studies.

Cantet is a technically skillful and socially-aware director, who has made only good films, beginning with “Human Resources,” in 2000, “Time Out,” in 2001, “Heading South,” in 2005, and now “The Class,” which took years of preparation, shooting and editing.

The film demands that viewers pay attention to long sequences of dialogue in the classroom, but the kids’ colorful personalities and the humor-peppered chats makes for a provocative, even entertaining experience. For the scenario, Cantet collaborated with the writer Robin Campillo and the teacher Francois Begaudeau, who plays the teacher himself and whose book has inspired the film.

Although the depicted events are fact-based, the film qualifies as fiction and the school kids, most of whom are 14 or 15, are playing largely scripted roles.

Set in a school in a rough Paris neighborhood, the story, begins at the start of the year and concludes at its end.

Francois (Begaudeau) is a handsome, sympathetic, resourceful young middle-age teacher of French, who goes out of his way to instill in his students respect for him and for education. The process calls for overcoming obstacles of natural resistance to authority, disruptive conduct, lack of discipline, and the  restlessness that define most students of this age.

In sharp contrast to Hollywood pictures about teachers and schools, the pupils do not represent types or stereotypes, but form a colorful aggregate. Wei (Wei Huang) is a bright, illegal Chinese immigrant; Souleymane (Keita) is a problematic boy from Mali, who has the nerve to ask Francois if he is a homo; Esmerelda (Ouertani) is loud-mouthed; Khoumba (Regulier) is a smart black girl; Carl (Nanor) is a brooding Caribbean boy expelled from previous schools.

Naturally, as a result of both varied roles played and personalities possessed, some students register more strongly than others.

As the classes are often vocal, noisy, and chaotic, Francois, like other teachers, struggles to keep control and maintain order, but ultimately, he succeeds in eliciting interest (and sometimes passion) in his students in literature, language, even verb tenses; French is notorious for its grammar and number of tenses, and some good jokes are made about it.

Singly and jointly, the teachers, seen in the staff room, share some similar problems and frustrations in dealing with the children. However, they have learned that each needs to develop his or her individual philosophies and methods of instruction.  Thus, some naturally opt for rigid authority and strict regulations, while others are more liberal and tolerate a more relaxed and friendly ambience in the class.

Some of the conflicts are about contents, that is, what the students think is appropriate and relevant for them to learn. For example, Francois clashes with the black student Khoumba who refuses to read aloud an entry from the Holocaust text, “The Diary Of Anne Frank” (made into a popular Hollywood film in 1959, by George Stevens). Shouldn’t she study black history, instead, an opinion she expresses with some anger in a letter to him.

End Note

This review was written in May.  Since then, France has selected “The Class” as its entry for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar.  Nominations of the five finalist will be announced on January 22, 2009.

Cast

Francois Begaudeau, Nassim Amrabt, Laura Baquela, Cherif Bounaidja Rachedi, Juliette Demaille, Dalla Doucoure, Arthur Fogel, Damien Gomes, Louise Grinberg, Qifei Huang, Wei Haung, Franck Keita, Henriette Kasaruhanda, Lucie Landrevie, Agame Malembo-Emene, Rabah Nait Oufella, Carl Nanor, Esmeralda Ouertani, Burak Ozyilmaz, Eva Paradiso, Rachel Regulier, Angelica Sancio, Samantha Soupirot, Boubacar Toure, Justine Wu, Atouma Dioumassy, Nitany Gueyes.

Credits

Produced by Carole Scotta, Caroline Benjo, Barbara Letellier, Simon Arnal.
Directed by Laurent Cantet.
Screenplay: Cantet, Francois Begaudeau, Robin Campillo, based on the novel “Entre les murs” by Begaudeau.
Camera: Pierre Milon, Catherine Pujol, Georgi Lazarevski.

Editors: Robin Campillo, Stephanie Leger.
Set decorators: Sabine Barthelemy, Helene Bellanger.

Costume designer: Marie Le Garrec.
Sound: Olivier Mauvezin, Agnes Ravez, Jean-Pierre Laforce.

Running time: 128 Minutes.