"I recently saw this film at The Denver Film Festival. It premiered at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, and has since been nominated for a Spirit Award in the category of Best Foreign Film. Because it was the first French film in 21 years to win the Palme d'Or at the Festival de Cannes in 2008, I'm predicting it will also be nominated for an Oscar, and it should win that Oscar. Directed by Laurent Cantet, and based on a semi-autobiographical novel by François Bégaudeau, The Class (Entre les murs, which translates as "Between the Walls") tells the story of François Martin, a teacher in a rowdy, inner-city middle school in Paris, which represents a microcosm of the conflicting cultures and attitudes in contemporary France. François Bégaudeau stars in the role of the teacher.
Cantet filmed The Class (http://www.sonyclassics.com/theclass/) in a faux documentary style, using multiple improvised shots of real students and real teachers in a multi-ethnic French class in the 20th arrondissment of Paris. Shot almost entirely in a single classroom, much of the film chronicles François' verbal confrontations with his French, African, Caribbean, Moroccan, Turkish, and Asian students. While he may not be a perfect teacher, François is highly effective in his pedagogic methods, much like Sidney Poitier's Mark Thackeray character in To Sir, With Love. (The films have much in common.) In one pivotal scene, he uses the word "pétasse" to describe two of his street-savvy female students (which translates as "skank"), which prompts a classmate, Soulaymane (Franck Keita), to defend them at the risk of being expelled and sent back to Mali. In another pivotal scene, one student tells François at the end of the school year that she has learned nothing and has understood nothing in his class. The Class is a not only a brilliant film, it is a perfect example of why French cinema surpasses nearly everything being produced in Hollywood these days. It plays out as a thought-provoking metaphor of the diverse ethnic mix of 21st-century Paris. Highly recommended.
The More He Teaches, the Less They Learn
Chris Pandolfi | Los Angeles, CA | 02/28/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The first thing director Laurnet Cantet did right when making "The Class (Entre les Murs)" was asking the author of the original novel, François Bégaudeau, to write the film's screenplay. He then went a step further and cast Bégaudeau as the teacher, M. Marin, which is only fitting since his novel is a semi-autobiographical account of his experiences as a literature teacher in a Parisian inner-city middle school. "The Class" is telling a story, yet it often feels as authentic as a documentary, not just because the actors are incredibly convincing, but also because it has been stripped of traditional cinematic embellishments. There are no special effects or elaborate camera tricks. There isn't even a basic musical score. There are just the actors and the classroom set, and we're watching the events naturally unfold.
I suspect most Western audiences will respond to this movie, despite the fact that it takes place in France. It tackles issues many students and teachers will find relatable, not the least of which is the sense that bridging the gap between student and teacher is sometimes impossible. Marin starts the semester with the hope that he will connect with his multiracial students, who live in urban areas and come from lower income families. But as time goes on, he slowly realizes that they don't want to connect with him. I got the sense that neither side was able to see the opposing point of view; Marin has a hard time understanding why his students don't want to learn, whereas the students have a hard time understanding why Marin wants them to conform.
Take, for example, the fact that one of Marin's lessons covers sentence structure, which involves highly confusing terms like "imperfect predicate," or something along those lines. The students take none of this in, but when you stop and think about it, does anyone? In the grand scheme of things, diagramming a sentence hardly seems like a necessary skill ... unless, of course, you're planning on becoming a linguistics professor. It's not that Marin's students are stupid--they just don't see what the point is. Besides, it's not as if society wants them to be anything more than what they project; it seems that when you're automatically written off as a bad kid, there's little point in trying to be something else.
Mind you, none of this is directly stated. This movie is more interested in implications, which is to say that we have no real idea why there's such a disassociation between the students and the faculty. All we know is that it exists, and neither side knows how to make the other understand where they're coming from. And then there's the fact that most of the faculty base disciplinary decisions on statistical facts, and whenever a student faces a behavioral committee, they hear only generic spiels about how he or she isn't living up to his or her potential. This isn't quite the way Marin works; he bases disciplinary decisions more on emotion, which ultimately does more to harm his reputation than improve it.
There's a fascinating sense of camaraderie amongst the students, as if they all share the belief that teachers are the enemy. One of the most troublesome is Souleymane (Franck Kieta), the son of Mali immigrants with a bit of an anger management problem. There are also Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani), who's of Middle Eastern descent and never feels valued by Marin, and Khoumba (Rachel Regulier), whose attitude seems to have soured since the last semester; just as smart as they are temperamental, both girls seem to know just how to use Marin's less conservative teaching methods against him. The only distant character is Wei (Wei Huang), the brainy son of Chinese immigrants. We don't learn much about him, although we suspect that his scholastic achievements are influenced more by duty than by a need to prove himself.
One of the best achievements of "The Class" is making us feel like we know the characters, and this is despite the fact that personal details are mostly kept hidden. We know, for example, that Marin is approachable as a human being, and he gets along just fine with the rest of the faculty, many of who are just as frustrated by their students as he is. But when it comes to being a mentor, something is seriously lacking; he can "teach" in the strictest sense of the word, but that doesn't mean his students are actually learning anything.
An important metaphor is introduced towards the end of the film, but to describe it would do you a great disservice. Let it suffice to say that the final few shots say volumes about the relationship between students and teachers, or lack thereof. It may not be immediately obvious, but if you pay close attention, I'm sure you will pick up on it. It's a refreshing approach to the typical Hollywood version of a school drama, where eager but inexperienced teachers are able to reach out to their at-risk students and forever change their lives. This isn't to say that "The Class" is a French version of school drama; it feels so genuine that genre doesn't even come into play. It's a compelling character study that enables us to see various points of view all at once, and it does so without lingering on extraneous details. I'd say that's quite an achievement, considering how easily it could have gone wrong."
"The Class" Provides a Lot For Discussion
thornhillatthemovies.com | Venice, CA United States | 02/19/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
""The Class (Entre Les Murs)", France's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, is an interesting, insightful, almost Cinema Verite look at one teacher and one class of his students in a high school in a Paris suburb.
Based on a book by the film's star, Francois Begadeau, about his own experiences as a teacher, the film concentrates on Francois' French class in a high school in a tough suburb of Paris.
But director Laurence Cantet focuses the film even further, heightening the documentary feel of the story. We focus on one group of students in one of Francois' classes. These students are a melting pot of ethnicities, all trying to learn in the same environment even though they are clearly at different levels. So Francois' job involves just trying to communicate with and maintain discipline with his students. Interestingly, each of the actors plays an eponymous student. I don't a lot about the background or history of the story behind this film, but this fact leads me to believe that each actor is playing a fictionalized version of himself or herself.
As the school year begins, Francois arrives at his school to find char women cleaning the rooms. He begins to prepare and then meets with the other teachers. They go around the group, introducing themselves to each other, identifying the new teachers and the department chairs, offering welcome and help coping with the school year. Later, we see a teacher pointing out the good and bad students to a newbie, helping them sort out who will be trouble. This is the first moment when I really connected with the story and felt the film was going to show us an in-depth look at the French education system. Before this moment, everything looks and feels too perfect, too clean, too idyllic and well prepared. Early on, you get the feeling we should prepare for a fairy tale or a romanticized tale of an educator, ala "Dead Poet's Society" or "Stand and Deliver". When one teacher begins rolling down the class list, telling the new teacher "He'll be trouble. He's OK. Trouble" and then begins going down the whole list, with one word summaries of each, you realize this school is probably a lot more like the schools we are familiar with. When this moment happens, you have hope this film will dig deeper.
And it does. The story concentrates on Francois' interactions with the students in one of his classes. We learn he had most of these students the previous year. He has a history with them and this leads him to have a familiarity of how they will act up, how they will test him. He asks one black girl to read a passage from "The Diary of Anne Frank". She protests and accuses him of picking on her, she doesn't want to read, why can't he pick someone else. When he realizes the student, who provides the standard for many of the other girls in the class, has just become unreasonably unruly, he confronts her. "We got along well last year, what happened?" When she looks down, we know she realizes she is giving him a hard time. But she's a teenager and it is difficult to express her feelings.
As the school year progresses, we see a few brief moments with the other teachers, but the main focus of the story is Francois and his attempts to try to teach his students. And throughout the film, Begadeau is able to portray Francois, showing us his conflict. He is a young man, I would guess mid thirties, young enough to still be a little idealistic, but also a teacher long enough to realize he won't be able to reach very many of his students, he won't be able to provide them with the education they so desperately need. As he interacts with his students, we get a sense of how quickly each of these emotions plays through each interaction with each student. When a student announces there is a rumor floating around that he is gay, he playfully responds by trying to teach them some French, making the student restate the accusation using proper grammar. Later, his frustration gets the better of him and he lashes out at some of the students. Later still, another student answers one of his questions indicating a deep knowledge and understanding of the topic he is talking about. These are the types of students he longs for and you can see the delight register on his face when he realizes this student is actually paying attention, actually trying to learn amid all of the disruptive behavior of the other kids.
An extended subplot concerns one of Francois' students, an African kid whose parents don't speak French at home and wear the dress traditional to their country. In a moment of frustration, Francois gets in an argument with two of the girls who are the most disruptive. At the same time, the young man, who has been problematic, gets fed up and ends up accidentally injuring another girl. But because of his history at the school, Francois and his superiors decide to hold an administrative meeting to decide whether he should be expelled. As all of the preparations for this meeting take place (two representatives of the student body must be in attendance and two representatives of the parents must also be in attendance), Francois begins to doubt if this is the right path. What will it accomplish? The student's mom speaks no French and her son must translate everything for her. She doesn't even believe her son is a troublemaker; he does his work, he never misses school. Francois tries to convince her this isn't true. But she knows what she sees. Then during the meeting, we see how serious the school faculty takes this matter. It is almost a court trial, with people making statements, others asking questions and ultimately the student and his mom leave the room while they vote.
These moments help to illustrate Francois' growing frustration with the situation. On the one hand, expelling his student will accomplish nothing. He will still have troublemakers in his class. In fact, it will probably only hurt the student. But on the other hand, if they don't enforce the rules can the situation get anything but worse? So he feels a reluctance to follow the protocol, to continue with the proceedings.
There is a moment about midway through the film when the new teacher, the one receiving advice from a veteran about who will be good students and who will be bad, rushes into the teacher's lounge, infuriated. "They're nothing but animals", he shouts. While this moment is a little 'on the cuff', it is a helpful illustration. We can completely imagine Francois being in this same mind frame a few years ago. But now that he has a few more years of experience under his belt, he realizes he has to simply do the best he can.
"The Class" is an interesting, almost Cinema Verite look at one teacher's attempts to teach his students. It is a very good, very well made film. And the parallels to the American school system are almost shocking."
The DVD version gives you a chance to replay scenes that fly
Steven I. Ramm | Phila, PA USA | 07/19/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I knew absolutely nothing about this film - other than it was in French and won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. I wanted to approach it with no pre-conceptions. After watching the 2 hour, 10-minute film on DVD I then read the background. I knew it was not a documentary but I wasn't aware that the teacher was the author of the original book upon which the film was based, and that he also wrote the screenplay. The students seemed to be too realistic to be professional actors. (And they aren't; they are actual students at the school.). I stuck with the film, waiting for a solution or happy ending (like Mr. Holland's Opus" or "Stand and Deliver") but it never came. At first I was disappointed , but then - after thinking about it - I realized that this is "real life" (it was based on an actual class) and it was just as much an experiment in filmmaking (using the teacher/author and the student/actors) as an entertainment film.
I won't go in to the details of the film - another reviewer, Chris Pandolfi, has done that already - but will comment on the DVD version, which I do recommend. First off, the subtitles are clear and probably the largest font I've seen in a while and are in the black bar below the screen (except, oddly at one point where a few sentences appear ABOVE the picture) , making them easy to read. The DVD also allows you to scan back to a section you may have missed. The bonus features include a 40-minute "making of" featurette and two brief scenes with commentary by the director and star/author. All of these are in French with subtitles. The "Making of" adds to appreciating the film even more, but watch it AFTER you have seen the film; not before.
If you are an educator, you will find this film food for thought. If you are a parent of high school aged students you will find this "real", even though it takes place in a multi-cultural school in France.
Steve Ramm "Anything Phonographic"
What I learned 'Between the Walls'...
P. Gagliardi | Horsham, PA United States | 08/17/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"It is hard for me to imagine a story so heavily anchored in the mundane that kept me so heavily anchored to my seat. I've watched this film four times so far, and have yet to grow bored of it. The teacher, who has a predetermined curriculum to impart, is constantly being derailed by the dialectic that these students seem to prefer much more. In so doing, they seem to arrive at a middle ground between what society deems to be important for these kids to learn, and what actually IS relevant to them in their lives and experiences, not unlike a dialogue between interlocutors and Socrates, to whom they later even pay tribute with a mention of Plato's 'Republic'. Along the way, you observe the blindness and shortcomings of institutions as well as the obstinate perpetuity of the disenfranchised, and plenty of snobbery and vacuity from all quarters. Between the need for social harmony and social progress, between the theoretical and the practical, and between aspirations and reality, you are educated at the crossroads where those notions all intersect "between the walls" of 'The Class'."