Film Reviews

The Class (Entre Les Murs) Laurent Cantet

Rating - 9/10

Laurent Cantet’s 2008 Palme d’Or winning film, The Class (Entre Les Murs), is a masterful study of classroom dynamics in a tough inner city middle school in Paris. The concept – talented teacher struggles to break through to apathetic teenage students – may be a familiar one, but relatively few works have handled it competently in recent years, let alone well.

The standard genre effort – think low, think Dangerous Minds – tells us very little about modern education, other than the glaringly obvious fact that the writer and director know virtually nothing about it. The Class succeeds because it is anchored in reality. François Bégaudeau’s screenplay features no outlandish plot devices because Bégaudeau knows from his own experience as a teacher in Paris that there is sufficient drama in the everyday. Incidentally, Bégaudeau, who also wrote the semi-autobiographical book on which the film is based, plays the role of the French teacher and class supervisor, François, providing another tick in the authenticity column.

From the opening scene, in which the school’s more seasoned teachers introduce themselves to the clearly anxious new recruits, The Class looks and feels like a documentary. The camera-work is functional rather than flashy and the pupils, who are often seen in close-up, look like I’d expect teenagers from a relatively deprived inner city neighbourhood of Paris to look.

The titular class consists of students from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds, including Moroccan, Malian, Caribbean and Chinese, and the almost inevitable clashes of culture contribute to the palpable sense of tension that is present during the bulk of the film’s classroom scenes. Even when François is on the edge of making a minor breakthrough, there’s always the sense that chaos could be just around the next corner. Frequently it is.

Whether you’ve stood in front of a classroom of unruly teenagers or not, many of this film’s scenes will shock you. There are several uncomfortable moments, such as when a male student directly challenges François regarding his sexuality, but the experienced teacher is generally able to diffuse these situations with a witty response. Nevertheless, there are two notable occasions during which François clearly loses his cool; the latter, which sees him emotionally squaring up to two female students in the playground, only to find himself surrounded by the majority of the class, has to be one of the most emotionally-charged and claustrophobic scenes I’ve seen in the last five years.

Away from the classroom, Cantet’s film does raise many other questions relating to modern day education; the scenes involving the parent-teacher evening, the teachers meetings, and the disciplinary panel in the film’s final third are all as thought-provoking as they are illuminating. Then there’s another fundamental issue: is one rigid curriculum appropriate for all students? And are highly formal and frequently tedious subjects such as grammar as relevant to today’s youth as they once were? The Class doesn’t attempt to answer these questions but it will undoubtedly make you ponder the state of the educational system and the role of the teacher on your way home from the cinema.

At the very end of the film, François asks the students to tell him one fact that they have learned over the course of the school year. There are a couple of banal replies, naturally, but three of the responses resonate, each for very different reasons. The first student attempts to describe Pythagoras’ theorem, with little success, prompting friendly laughter amongst his peers. The second, an intelligent yet argumentative girl by the name of Esmeralda, casually admits to reading Plato’s The Republic at home, much to the surprise of François. The third student, a quiet girl who approaches François at the end of the class, states that she has learned nothing at all. This unexpected bolt, which comes from the mouth of a girl who has been relatively anonymous throughout the film, highlights the difficulties faced by François and, no doubt, the frustrations of many teachers working today. He has invested a lot more than just his time and pedagogical skills; he has tried his best to control a number of students with varying behavioural problems; yet, despite all of this, he has still been unable to help this particular pupil progress.

The Class is an intelligent and enjoyable film. It feels genuine, and makes its points eloquently and, at times, entertainingly. It’s certainly the best film about education in recent memory and, if you have even a passing interest in teaching or child/adolescent behaviour, it’s an absolute must-see.