Entre les murs
Review by Stephen Snart
Posted on 11 November 2008
Source Sony Pictures Classics 35mm print
Categories The 46th New York Film Festival
Winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival can be both a blessing and a curse. Like any other top award, the Palme d’Or can bestow the heavy burden of unrealistic expectations upon its subsequent audiences. I’m tempted to think that in recent years the prize has become more of an albatross than an award. Last year’s winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days failed to make the finalists for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars and the previous year’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley received a rather minimal release with subdued responses. With the exception of Fahrenheit 9/11, none of the winners over the past decade have gone on to significant commercial success. (Out of the same pool, only The Pianist and Dancer in the Dark continued to rack up serious award attention from other ceremonies and festivals.) This year’s recipient, Laurent Cantet’s The Class is being given a plum Christmas release date and has been submitted as France’s official selection for the Oscars but it will have to overcome a lot of competition from big stars and flashy aesthetics in order to distinguish itself amongst the crowd. Those expecting the Palme d’Or to signify something visually or narratively revolutionary will be underwhelmed by The Class. Instead what the film does offer - and I think this is a remarkable achievement indeed - is the power to compel inward reflection and insight into the nature of being both a teacher and a student in the equivalent of a US middle school context; the most painful and least productive years of secondary education, if you ask me.
Set exclusively within a French public school, the film offers lengthy, piercing glimpses into the situations that unfold within a standard classroom. Never does the film break form and show a character outside of the institutional setting, leaving the viewer to glean personal details form their classroom behavior and speculate what the lives of the students and teachers are like outside of school. While there are interludes at faculty meetings, playground sports and parent/teacher conferences, the film’s primary focus is on a French grammar class led by François, a teacher who has been around for a few years and treats his students with a frank regard, willing to push them just as far as they choose to push him. The film establishes its penchant for lingering, uninterrupted classroom sequences right away by introducing the characters in a lengthy segment void of pact responses and opportune cutaways. The viewer, along with François, has to struggle through all the digressions and diversions that obstruct the completion of the arranged lesson plan. By incorporating both the lesson and the digressions, the film suggests the benefits of both forms of knowledge, i.e. the learning is in the living—a point reiterated in that almost all of the lessons revolve around developing self-expression and their accompanying pains of class participation.
The Class is an adaptation of a 2006 book entitled Entre les murs (Between the Walls) written by François Bégaudeau and based on his real-life experiences as a teacher. Bégaudeau also contributed to the screenplay and plays François in the film, but even if you weren’t aware of his off-screen contributions you could tell he must have real teaching experience based on his natural air and keen delivery of classroom discourse. But that’s not meant to take away anything from his performance. He has a palpable screen presence and the intense concentration of a skilled thespian; it’s literally the performance of a lifetime and such a statement serves to reiterate the film’s understanding of the intertwined nature of performer and teacher (a sentiment similarly expressed in fellow NYFF screener Happy Go Lucky).
One thing that the Palme d’Or does do, if not secure subsequent commercial and critical success, is cement auteur status for the director. The likes of Quentin Tarantino, Mike Leigh and Gus Van Sant have all had their reputations as auteurs established or emboldened by directing Palme d’Or winners and on paper it seems likely that Laurent Cantet will achieve the same status boost with only his fourth feature-length film. However, in the actual viewing, it’s Bégaudeau who comes through as the film’s master of ceremonies—it wasn’t until a late shot of a student reading an essay directly to the camera that recalls the awkward moments of direct address in Heading South that I remembered who directed the film. While Bégaudeau may receive all the attention (The New York Times listed him as one of the five breakthrough performances of the Holiday season) and certainly played a crucial part in the creation of the film - both in terms of source material and leading many of the film’s improvisational-based scenes—it is a great disservice to underestimate how much credit Cantet deserves for crafting such a subtle and truthful film.
Like Half Nelson, The Class features some of the most realistically performed classroom scenes I’ve ever seen on film. While Ryan Fleck achieved Half Nelson’s performances by shooting in long lenses from long distances as to avoid reminding the children of the camera’s presence, Cantet shoots the film up-close with three simultaneously filming HD cameras that were stationed so that they could focus intently on whatever direction the performers took the scene. The final product is a remarkable accomplishment that makes you forget you are watching actors and merges fast cuts to create the impression of simultaneous action without overindulging in documentary signifiers like shaky handheld shots or distorted sound, as is the case with something like Mike Akel’s Chalk, which had more in common with The Office than a documentary.
Even more remarkable than its achievement in filmmaking is its effectiveness at conveying how difficult it is to be both a teacher and a student. The film adopts an admirably evenhanded approach to presenting both sides of the story and creates situations where both parties our seen to be at fault. François is neither a saintly pedagogue nor a villainous autocrat. His students aren’t brats or juvenile delinquents, they’re multi-layered and identifiable. When their behavior seems aloof or confrontational or even violent, the film hints that something in their personal life is affecting their schooling without divulging the exact motivator of their insolence. The plot avoids a traditional narrative arc and lulls the viewer into complacency before erupting in a late plot development and then believably reverting back to normalcy, resolving its situations in a realistic and controlled manner.
Real-life secondary education students will likely find the plotting too slow and deliberate to sit through and thus the film is unlikely to foster any change in their school behavior - and if they can sit through it, maybe they’ll find it too familiar and choose to block out the harshness of facing one’s own reflection. Either way, it won’t make middle school any easier as a rite of passage but it might be able to heal wounds over time. The Class is a product of retrospection in its creation and it benefits from being viewed with that same distance. Like so much of education, one needs to step back and maintain a levelheaded approach in order to receive enlightenment.
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