The Class (Entre les murs)
A Paris teacher, but not a savior
The center doesn't hold at Francoise Dolto Junior High. It can't. Not anymore. Trouble roils this Paris public school. Not in the way Hollywood has conditioned us to recognize chaos: gangbangers ruling the hallways, dance-offs that erupt in the cafeteria, proms that become blood-drenched nightmares. Laurent Cantet's drama "The Class" brings us back to earth, unalloyed.
The problems at Dolto are more internal and less sensational. Its student-teacher debates are philosophical and political, off-topic but very much on-topic. The school's chaos resides in the shifting nature of how students perceive their roles, and the idea that teachers misunderstand the needs and sensitivities of their students.
It takes a patient filmmaker to draw out the conflict. Cantet sticks his camera for long stretches in the teachers lounge, in the library, in a single classroom (the subject is French) to allow for the impression of fly-on-the-wall transparency. Over the course of a fictitious school year (whittled down to two hours), we can study the faces of the mostly white adults and the mostly nonwhite 14-year-old students from working-class families, and perceive wonder, exasperation, confusion, anger, cool. Some kids' faces don't give anything away, lest that cool be spotted for the pose it is.
The scenes are like photographs left in developer fluid until some kind of truth is overexposed. Here the truth is that there is no good answer for what plagues a troubled school. The institution of education is in disarray: In an inexorably multinational world, the old systems of harvesting knowledge in young minds need to change. The very question of why we learn what we learn and from whom we learn it is under siege.
When young Francois Marin (Francois Begaudeau) tries to teach a language exercise, the kids stop him after he scribbles an example sentence on the blackboard: Bill had a succulent cheeseburger. Why pick a cheeseburger, they ask? And what kind of name is "Bill"? How about Aissata or Rachid? Enough with these white, French names. Marin's elegance hits a snag: You're French, he says. But Khoumba (Rachel Regulier) and Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani), his most vocal opponents, don't see it that way. Esmeralda is French but, as ethnic minority, she doesn't feel French in any traditional, white way, and I imagine she thinks it'd be nice to learn from a teacher sensitive to such matters. She and her classmates are hung up on details, but in this case, those details, the details of identity, actually matter.
Every detail matters to them. Marin says they waste an hour's class time with distractions. But class, they correct, is only 55 minutes. And what is this imperfect subjunctive? Who speaks that way? Nobody, they say. So why learn it? Ah, the empired strike back at the empire.
After one class, Marin makes Khoumba, who's retreated from the progress she made with him a year ago, apologize for being disruptive, and her half-hearted contrition frustrates him even more. After several tries, she delivers one he likes and he dismisses her. The minute she's out the door, she rudely rescinds it.
The amazingly direct letter Khoumba writes him a few scenes later (she titles it "Respect") chastises him for insensitivity and explains that she won't be actively participating during class. Her letter underscores the central tension between the teachers and these politically savvy students. They've been conditioned (probably by each other and by what they know of French history) to expect a kind of parity with adults. They've grown suspicious of the institutional power dynamic in the student-teacher relationship, seeing it, in part, as an unmitigated extension of government. (When the principal shows up to deliver a new student, he has to remind them, rather comically, that standing up when a grown-up enters the room doesn't signify subjugation. It's just polite.) The kids' defense mechanisms encourage them to miss the broader goals of education, but their racial grievances also have merit that seems lost, I think, on Marin, who responds to these challenges with a kind of condescension that the kids always sense.
"The Class" is based on a book Begaudeau wrote about his years teaching in the Paris school system. He drafted the script with Robin Campillo and Cantet, who's encouraged the fine young actors to improvise their way through some scenarios. The version Begaudeau plays of himself makes the author's mistakes, but his sincerity and devotion to education are hardly in doubt. Still, he's not the saintly savior the movies like to parade like propaganda: We don't need another hero.
This man is a much more useful guide to the realities of Western education than the sterling examples of pedagogy we normally get in film. Goodbye, Mr. Chips, indeed. Toward the film's back half, Marin crosses the line with a slur that the appalled kids run with. I've been in that classroom and seen the wildfires that fan out across a school when a teacher's tongue slips. I'm not sure I believe Marin would really have said what he says. But his blunder allows the movie to present the idea that he's more powerless in a way than his students.
Marin is another of Cantet's characters who are basically frustrated laborers; the movie, another intelligent example of his films that show how work doesn't always work out. In 1998's "Human Resources," a son is forced to lay his father off. In 2002's superb "Time Out," a family man pretends to go to his job after losing it. In 2005's half-fascinating, half-regrettable "Heading South," it was poor, underemployed Haitians exploiting horny lady tourists.
"The Class," which is a foreign-language Oscar nominee and was the big winner at the Cannes Film Festival last year, pulls back enough on this school so that it functions as an emblem of a system that both disserves education and greatly enables it. I was much more disheartened leaving the movie the first time I saw it than I was the second. Its richness resides in its apparent objectivity. Without sacrificing a sense of hope, Cantet suggests that the school system is just like a certain vexing grammatical tense: imperfect but still fighting against irrelevance.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.