Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review - The Class (Entre les murs)

Laurent Cantet's Entre les murs is being released in English-speaking countries as The Class, but a more accurate translation of its French title is Between the Walls, and that would be a very appropriate appellation for this remarkable film. For the majority of its running time, the drama in this movie occurs within the four walls of a single classroom, as Mr Marin tries to teach the feisty, combative and lively teenagers in his charge. Mr Marin is played by François Bégaudeau, a man with no prior acting experience, and if he appears utterly comfortable and natural in the role, that's because he's the real-life teacher whose memoirs inspired Cantet to make this film. Surrounding Bégaudeau is a cast of equally inexperienced actors, all of whom were encouraged to develop their characters through improvisation, and the performances the director has elicited from this ensemble are extraordinary for their lack of artifice. There's hardly a single moment in The Class that doesn't feel completely authentic and organic.

While the film looks and feels like a documentary, there is a narrative at work here, which slowly reveals itself about halfway through the picture. Before that point, we simply observe the day-to-day interactions between Marin and his pupils, and in these scenes, The Class differentiates itself from almost every other school-based film we've seen by making one simple choice – it actually focuses on teaching. In stark contrast to films like Dead Poets Society or Mr Holland's Opus, where the characters' private lives and extra-curricular activities drive the drama, The Class shows us Mr Marin trying to explain the intricacies of grammar to his students, and lets the film's themes arise from these discussions. When the teacher begins to talk to the students about the imperfect subjunctive, they are quick to question the merit of such knowledge, deriding it as bourgeois language which has no relevance to the way they communicate. When Marin uses the name Bill for an example sentence, his multicultural class take him to task for always using "whitey" names, and insist he change it to something more in tune with their African and Middle Eastern backgrounds, like Aïssata or Fatou. In The Class, the act of teaching is depicted as a constant battle, as Mr Marin searches for a way to get through to his students, as they try to find ways to outwit and undermine him.

A teacher would need the patience of a saint to contend daily with the kind of uncooperative, moody teenagers Marin is faced with here, but even though Bégaudeau is essentially playing a version of himself here, this is no idealised portrait. The Class is one of the rare films in this genre to offer us a flawed educator; Mr Marin is likable and well-meaning, but he's also weak and frequently unable to maintain his control over the students. In fact, the drama of the film's second half is actually instigated by his lack of professionalism, when he finally loses his temper and recklessly hurls the word pétasses towards the two girls whose behaviour had been getting under his skin. This one remark sends a shockwave through the movie; resulting in disciplinary action against one of Marin's students, and much tongue-tied babbling from the teacher as he tries to talk himself out of the hole he has dug for himself. He eventually finds himself facing his angry class and trying to convince them that the word has a much more innocent connotation than they believe, and this scene takes place not in Marin's home turf of the classroom, but outside in the schoolyard; the balance of power has shifted.

The kids are amazing throughout The Class. Standouts include Esmeralda Ouertani as the quick-witted but obnoxious Esmeralda, who is unafraid of offering her opinion on Marin's teaching methods; Rachel Régulier as the sullen Khoumba, whose refusal to read an extract aloud threatens to undermine the teacher's authority; and Franck Keita, as the volatile Souleymane, whose fate is the key question in the film's second half. Cantet has used non-actors in his films before – notably in his excellent debut Human Resources – and he has a wonderful knack for capturing spontaneous moments, the moments that make the film feel so thrillingly alive. The superb camerawork is involving but never intrusive, allowing the audience to share a sense of intimacy with the onscreen events, while the supremely sharp editing keeps the film in constant motion. The Class is a film with very little in the way of conventional action, but it's an exhilarating picture to watch nonetheless.
The Class covers a year in the life of a single Parisian classroom, but it is a film which could be taking place in any classroom in any major city. Its themes are universal, and the questions it provokes about cultural identity, discipline, and the way we teach and learn should resonate with any viewers who seek out this marvellous film. Cantet doesn't pretend to have any answers for these questions, and at the film's close, we are left to wonder what Mr Marin has accomplished in the time we've been watching him. Teacher movies throughout the years have instructed us to expect some kind of inspirational, uplifting moment to occur before the credits roll, but The Class doesn't offer us that easy get-out; some students have learned nothing at all, and some have been lost forever. And as the kids break free for the summer, Cantet's final shots remain in the empty classroom, allowing us time to contemplate all of the issues that his film has raised. He leaves us between the walls, and all is suddenly calm.