reviewed by Marc Glassman
The Class (Entre les murs). Laurent Cantet, director and co-script w/Robin Campillo & Francois Bégaudeau. Starring: Francois Bégaudeau (Francois Miron), Wei Huang (Wei), Esmeralda Ouertani (Sandra) Franck Keita (Souleymane)
The first French film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes in over twenty years and the opening night gala feature at the prestigious New York Film Festival, The Class comes to Canadian screens festooned with accolades. What we see in the opening scenes — and stylistically throughout the picture — seems surprisingly modest considering the advance buzz on the film. But it’s that very modesty, that off-handedly polite conflation between reality and fiction, which makes The Class truly remarkable.
A thirty-something teacher begins a new school year teaching 12 and 13 year-olds in a working class arrondisement (the 20th) in Paris. The man, Francois, is a typical white middle-class Parisian: liberal, educated, generally polite, funny — marked by a combination of arrogance, naiveté and diffidence. His teaching colleagues, mainly white men and women in their 30s to 50s, carry the same assumptions about life as him. Filmmaker Laurent Cantet quietly observes them exchanging pleasantries, eating cake and drinking coffee and going to meetings that are organized by formal codes that go back to Napoleon.
Then there are the students. Sullen and rebellious as only teenagers can be, they are quite unlike Francois and his friends. The kids constitute a rainbow tribe that didn’t exist in Europe before the ‘60s: North Africans, central Africans, Middle-Eastern-born Muslims and Asians from the Far East. This group doesn’t know or care about the Code Napoleon or the proper way to conjugate a verb. They know that they’re in class to learn how to conform to French rules of behaviour. And they resent it, questioning Francois relentlessly about his course list, demeanour and attempts to enforce regulations on them.
Inevitably, the gulf widens, leading to a series of confrontations that have tragic consequences for an African youth and cause irreparable damage to the relationship between Francois and his students. The Class stars a former teacher Francois Bégaudeau as the lead; he co-wrote the script, which is based on his book. The brilliance of the film lies in the way that it feels like a documentary but isn’t: in fact, The Class is an incisive, well constructed critique of how old-fashioned liberalism is failing to cope with the reality of a growing new multi-cultural society in France.
This is a film that grows in power as you watch it. Intelligent and critical without being boring or didactic, The Class is a must-see for viewers interested in the way the world is being transformed — for better or worse.