The Class (Entre les murs) – winner of the 2008 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival – finally obtains an Australian release and is well worth the wait. The Class is a curious mixture of performances backing an intriguing story, which adds up to an inspiring and challenging look at the world of childhood education, and at French society itself.
François Bégaudeau plays François, a young French teacher in an area of Paris that features a wide spectrum of ethnicity and religious beliefs that means his day-to-day workplace resembles a minefield. He is challenged by cultural factors he can’t possibly understand, but more often than not it is the fact his pupils are teenagers that is the issue. His class is made up of disrespectful students who question his methods and demonstrate little motivation to either learn or improve their lot in life. In spite of his best intentions he can’t help every student, and a personality clash may put his own work in jeopardy.
The Class was filmed in an semi-improvised form, with Bégaudeau playing short scenes with volunteer students from a school over the course of a year before the narrative was finalised and then filmed. All of the child actors in the film are local schoolkids, which brings an element of authenticity to the film that could make one wonder if it is documentary. Additionally, much of the character development is down to the students themselves, who clarified and improved their roles over the course of their year of preparation. This fact also suggests that much of the obnoxious behaviour displayed by the ‘students’ is grounded in reality, which is scary when one considers some of their antics to be bordering on appalling.
The film also contains several sequences that will be hard to understand for Australian viewers, with the presence of two ‘student representatives’ at staff meetings to discuss their student reports bordering on bizarre. Perhaps this reflects the French approach to egalitarianism, but it certainly makes the work of the teachers that much harder. Parent-teacher meetings may include parents blaming teachers for any perceived deficiencies in their child’s learning, and, given the sympathetic picture that develops of the earnest struggle most teachers endure, this seems most unfair.
Performances are generally excellent, with several students standing out – perhaps the focus of the story naturally gravitated towards those most capable of holding the interest of an audience, but the main student roles are universally well played. Bégaudeau is close to inspiring as the teacher, although still capable of crossing the line in a moment of frustration. Were he to have been shown as saint the film would likely be far less successful. Support comes from real teachers and the actual parents of the students taking part, again suggesting verité.
In spite of the use of handheld cameras this technique is never nausea-inducing as it often is in Hollywood action films, perhaps due to the relatively static tableau of the classroom. Several long shots add to the sense of immersion in a real classroom rather than spectating a staged scene, and director Laurent Cantet seems to know just when they’ve reached their natural end. This is particularly evident also in the introductory sequence in which the teachers are meeting one another at the start of the new school year. This scene almost perfectly introduces the setting and adult characters while placing everything in context.
The Class is a highly recommended look at Parisian life featuring excellent performances and a believable story. That it is sometimes difficult or uncomfortable should not make it any less worthwhile, and that it is also interesting for how it was made is an added bonus. Sure to be in top ten lists at the end of 2009.Rating: