Entre les Murs (The Class)
Directed by Laurent Cantet
Sony Pictures Classic, 2008
By Sean Kelly
The Class became the first French film in over two decades to pick up the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and has now been nominated in the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. The film stars François Bégaudeau, who co-wrote the screenplay based on his semi-autobiographical novel about teaching literature at a Paris middle school.
You could almost call The Class a fictional documentary. While the story itself is fictional, the film feels as if a documentary crew entered this Paris school and filmed the day-to-day actions of the students and teachers. This is supported by the film’s cinematography, which often looks like it was filmed by a spectator within the room, the camera holding close on its subjects.
The majority of the narrative is made up of the classroom discussions involving Bégaudeau’s character, Mr. Marin, and his class. The portrayal of the classroom is fascinatingly realistic. The bulk of the students use their real names, and all are non-actors from a junior high school in Paris’ rough suburbs. The filmmakers began with a script, but further developed and refined the characters through extensive workshops with the cast. Over the course of the film, you get to know each character’s distinct personality through their responses to Mr. Marin’s teachings.
Classroom scenes are interspersed with scenes showing the attitudes of the rest of the staff at the school. One such scene that was quite memorable involved a fellow teacher going on a rant about how he was fed up with the apathy of his students. Some other memorable moments outside of Marin’s lessons include parent/teacher interviews and discussions among the teachers about setting up a fund to help prevent the mother of a Chinese student from being deported.
It is Mr. Marin’s continuous struggle to break through the apathy of his students. Even a simple task such as creating a name tag is challenged by certain students (the reason being that they were in his class last year). There is one notable moment where a student refuses to read when asked to do so in class. She is kept after class and asked by Mr. Marin to apologize for her behaviour. She reluctantly does so, and it looks like Marin has gotten through to her — until she sharply retracts it just as she steps out the door.
Mr. Marin’s relationship with the students is the basis for the main dramatic arc of the film, which comes to center around Marin dealing with a troubled student in his class named Souleymane. Souleymane starts off apathetic about his assignments, and, throughout the course of the film, goes on a downward spiral to the point where he is in danger of being expelled. This story arc is one of the few instances in the film that uses a truly fictional character (Souleymane’s mother is the only parent in the film who is not their child’s actual parent); however it melds smoothly with the rest of the film’s action.
Throughout this arc, Mr. Marin is more willing than the rest of the staff to give Souleymane extra chances. When Souleymane gets further into trouble, Mr. Marin comes to his defense by trying to explain that his troubled behaviour was either a first offense or an accident. As his delinquency escalates, discussion is put forth about putting Souleymane in front of the school’s disciplinary committee. Mr. Marin fights against it, knowing full well that such a hearing would likely result in expulsion. Here, Marin proves himself a patient man with a deeply felt concern for the well-being of his students.
In the end, The Class is a remarkably honest look inside of a Paris middle school. I can’t recall another fictional film that provides this level of realism. The film offers something rare: a step away from the usual contrivances and the sense that you are actually present in a real world classroom.