Entre les murs (The Class, Laurent Cantet, France, 2008)
Today I saw this Palme d'Or winning film for the second time. Coming out of the cinema, I found myself in conversation with Age film critic, Philipa Hawker, whose first comments I completely agreed with - why did they change the title? So much meaning is lost in translation and the actual French title "Between the Walls" is so much more poignant and carries nuances that the English title discards.
I'll say up front that I find it a good film, but not the masterpiece I often find a Palme d'Or winner to be. My partner, a secondary school teacher herself, was keen to see it and I was happy to see it again (not something I do frequently). I enjoyed the film more on second viewing, which reflects that it stands up to scrutiny.
The Class is no "To Sir With Love", though it has elements in common. The film is based on a book by François Bégaudeau, who plays the teacher in the film, and based on a year of his experience as a teacher in a similar Parisian school with "difficult" demographics, ie, poverty, unemployment and immigration issues. The film employs a cinéma vérité look as if it were a documentary. The element that most distinguishes the film from others about school life is that the perspective is entirely from that of the teacher, and only from within the school walls (most of it within the one classroom). There is no "god" view that gives us privileged insights into the minds or lives of the children or even the teachers. It's as if we were there in the classroom documenting this one Year 4/5 French class over a span of months.
Cantet has a history of making observational films on non-sensationalist subjects, on revealling the drama of ordinary people in realistic situations. This is so in The Class, in which the drama is believable. Conflict occurs in the classroom and the teacher needs to control the constant threat of disorder. Sometimes he handles it better than other times, and there is no "Mr. Perfect" thing going on. In fact, sometimes the teacher inadvertently contributes to conflict.
There is a natural tendency for the audience to identify with François' general policies in the classroom. He seems a nice enough guy, sincere and with good strategies for eliciting participation and imparting knowledge. Yet, in meetings with other teachers, we see conflicting ideas and can't help but agree when another teacher accuses him of just trying to keep peace in the classroom.
In keeping it real, Cantet portrays the difficulties and small triumphs faced by teachers and depicting the behaviours of adolescents that a teacher has to deal with. As my partner often says, a teacher's role is often just managing behaviour, in order to build trust and create an environment where children choose to learn. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.
François is a French teacher and grammar is a much stronger component of education in that language than it is in ours (in this country at least). As a student of the French language, it was at first a little distracting to find I was digesting the lessons in l'imparfait infinitif and the subjunctif, which I found a little amusing. And it was also amusing to see the behaviours up close that I constantly hear complaints about in my own home, war stories from my partner's work.
A curious element is the differences between the French educational system than ours. For example, the procedures of discipline and expulsion. Or how student representatives are present during staff evaluations of students. These are small cultural details that I find rewarding from watching foreign cinema. It reminds me of how when I travel overseas, I am more interested in the seemingly mundane, like travelling on public transport and visiting a supermarket to see the differences in everyday trivialities than in visiting major landmarks.
The Class is not as emotionally engaging as Cantet's earlier Time Out, but still a quietly satisfying film that has potentially broad appeal as solid adult cinema, a good French film. It should be especially of interest to teachers, older students and parents. It opens this Thursday, and in Melbourne, screens exclusively at the Nova.