Entre les murs (The Class) (Director: Laurent Cantet): I’d been waiting to see this ever since it took the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year. It was supposed to play at TIFF and then the New York Film Festival scooped it, so as far as I’m aware, this was the Canadian premiere of this film, and there was plenty of pent-up demand, with lines snaking down the street outside the Isabel Bader Theatre. It didn’t hurt that the tickets were free, since the film opened the 4th annual Eh! U European Film Festival. This festival offers two weeks of free screenings, so be sure to check out the rest of the lineup.
The film has an interesting backstory. Entre les murs (literally “between the walls”) was originally the title of an “autobiographical novel” by Francois Begaudeau, a teacher of French in one of Paris’ tough “banlieues”. Director Cantet recruited Begaudeau to play himself in a dramatization of the book, using real junior high students to recreate the multi-racial environment of the classroom. The students collaborated with Cantet and Begaudeau and workshopped the film in rehearsals for months before shooting began. Although the film has the look and feel of a documentary, nothing was entirely spontaneous. It’s a remarkable achievement, expressing all the power of documentary while maintaining some dramatic and cinematographic conventions.
One thing that keeps the tension high is the fact that we never leave the school itself. The film covers an entire school year, and we stay mostly with M. Marin (Begaudeau) as he confers with fellow teachers, meets with parents and of course, attempts to teach in the maelstrom of his classroom. His charges range from ages 13-15 and are from all sorts of cultural backgrounds (Morocco, Tunisia, Mali, China and the Caribbean are all represented). As a teacher of French, he’s teaching more than just language, but also what it means to be French. His students push back in every way imaginable. Not only are they generally unruly, but they don’t approve of his teaching methods or his insistence on teaching them things like the imperfect subjunctive, which they feel is from “the Middle Ages.” Although he presents himself as one of the more “progressive” teachers, his exasperation grows over time until he lashes out verbally at two students, which leads to a physical confrontation with another. Cantet’s claustrophobic camera helps you understand Marin’s rage. He feels as trapped in the school as his students, except that he’s outnumbered and no one will listen to him.
Classrooms are like petri dishes of society in general, and Entre les murs does a fine job of poking and stirring the dish just enough to provoke some real drama. But best of all were the small moments of grace, when we get to see the little victories, not so much for Marin, but for his students. Two things stuck with me after watching the film. First, that teaching is hard work; and second, that young people are endlessly capable of surprising us.