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February 3, 2009 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | February 3, 2009 |

An infinitely more revealing and accurate title for The Class is its original French one: Entre les murs, which translates as “Between the Walls.” Laurent Cantet’s film is a masterful examination of youth, education, and the liquid nature of language and emotion that defines the time everyone serves in public school, and that original title is better at getting to the heart of the students’ problem: that they are literally trapped, confined in a place not of their choosing and forced to survive there. The film is also a beautiful doubling and trebling of real life; it’s based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Francois Begaudeau, who taught for a while and who stars as a version of himself. Additionally, though the story is inspired by several of the anecdotes from Begaudeau’s book, it takes on a life of its own by using authentic middle school students and letting them improvise and interact freely within a larger scenic framework, creating amazing moments of anger and joy and rowdiness as they play off each other and their teacher in an attempt to come to grips with the general hell of being 14. The winner of the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, The Class is a stunning, evocative work that succeeds at everything, from Begaudeau’s multifaceted approach to teaching to the way the children challenge him and cut through each other.

The film opens quietly with Francois drinking coffee at a shop and walking to school before the academic term has begun. Cinematographer Pierre Millon is fantastic at tightly framing Francois’ face and boring journey through town, and this dedication to unflashy realism is one of the many things that lends the film an air of authenticity. (When the students enter the story, the camera is similarly aggressive in the way it captures them, holding tight on their faces or upper bodies, silently transmitting the tension of what it means to be young and stuck between the walls of a classroom.) Francois has been teaching at his school for four years, as he tells the rest of the faculty at a meeting to introduce new teachers, and he’s at once quietly impassioned about his kids and in no mood to pretend some of them are anything more than “academically limited” boys and girls from troubled homes with low incomes and dark futures. The rest of the faculty inhabit a similar tension between doing what they love and just trying to get something to stick, as perhaps best evidenced by the teacher who says he teaches “multiplication tables, and sometimes mathematics.” As the year begins, Francois once again resumes his Sisyphean task of attempting to engage his students, keep them focused, control their outbursts, and hopefully impart some basics of the French language on the way.

As far as narratives go, that’s it. The film is amazing in the honest way it never tries to fabricate any kind of melodramatic hook on which to hang the classroom scenes; no one brings a gun to class, or comes from behind to win the science fair, or learns to love learning again thanks to the influence of a magical mentor. As Begaudeau said of his novel, “There was no clear narrative line, no fictional plot centered around any one event. There were disciplinary meetings, but they were mostly events among many which followed their course.” Cantet doesn’t deviate from that set-up, and the result is a superbly constructed film that feels completely natural as it watches the students and their teacher interact over the course of a school year. The Class is far more winning than most more stereotypically manufactured stories about schools because it doesn’t make head-fakes at naturalism; Cantet’s direction and Francois’ guidance of the class allow for lengthy scenes in which teacher and student go back and forth in the endless debate of what’s worth learning, and why, and whether the student will participate, and at what point the teacher decides to react with punishment, and how that dynamic is controlled, and etc., etc. It’s both more and less exciting than it sounds on paper: less, because sometimes kids just ramble like kids, and more, because it’s refreshing and amazing to watch archetypes turn into legitimate characters through skilled filmmaking and storytelling.

Even the moment that in a lesser film would be an overplayed turning point — the arrival of a new student — is just one more regular thing that happens to Francois over the course of the year. In fact, the new arrival, Carl (Carl Nanor), communicates more about his character in one sentence than any amount of bad posturing could do. When asked to write a self-portrait like the rest of the class, Carl includes the line, “I hate visiting my brother in jail.” The boy’s backstory comes screaming home, but in the next moment the film has moved on to the next day, and the year keeps rolling forward. Most of Francois’ time is spent pushing the students to focus, though he often finds himself getting drawn into battles of what passes for wits among early teens. Cantet has spoken of the “no-exit rhetoric” evidenced in students at that age, and the way they go for broke pushing the teacher to constantly explain himself is recognizable to anyone who hasn’t blocked out the memories of their own youth in school. Francois butts heads with Esmeralda and Khoumba, a pair of girls who sit next to each other and give him nothing but grief, but he also makes time for Wey (Wey Huang), one of the few Asian students in the class and a boy who’s self-conscious about his weak French skills. But again, all of the drama born of these interactions is completely grounded in the frustrating reality of real education, and it’s a testament to the story at hand that long scenes of, say, Francois’ lecture about the present imperfect versus the present subjunctive never feel tedious. He’s constantly re-learning how to reach his students, even as they try harder not to be reached.

Cantet is also wonderful in the way he uses camera placement to telegraph emotion, including the way the classroom scenes are almost always shot from the same side of the room, turning the lectures into a spectator sport in which the teacher and students battle for control of the discussion. Similarly, scenes of the students at recess in the tiny concrete yard behind the school are shot from a couple stories up, through the window of the classrooms, keeping the viewer emotionally tied to Francois’ position of observer, not participant, in these children’s lives. As a result, when Francois loses his emotional balance after a heated exchange with a student in class and later on confronts them in the yard, there’s tension not just because the conversation is happening but because he has literally descended to their level, an error in judgment rendered palpable by the camera’s place in the yard, surrounded by kids.

As the film plays out, Francois becomes increasingly involved in a battle of wills with a pair of girls in his class, and Cantet examines the very human interactions that take place when representatives of opposing generations attempt to connect. Francois keeps using the word “normal” in his lectures or warnings, striving to impart a sense of proper language on a group of children who don’t even understand his worldview. Yet Francois is always the first to defend some of his rowdier students to the rest of the staff, and Cantet skillfully cuts through any inconsistencies by crafting a film about balanced, nuanced characters who inhabit the kind of dichotomy that allows Francois to insult his students while also going so far to keep them from being punished that a fellow teacher accuses him of “trying to buy social harmony.” It’s almost hard to put into words the transitory nature of adolescence Cantet manages to capture on film, but part of the movie’s allure is that very duality, that sense that the story is a culmination of everything that came before and a declaration that life will probably continue as it has been. Even as the school year draws to a close and the students begin to entertain the notion of a summer of freedom, the thought of the next class to spend time between the institution’s walls is never far away.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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