‘The Class’ teaches the value of disappointment

Laurent Cantet’s Entre Les Murs (The Class) kicked off this year’s French Film Festival with an explosion of adolescent outrage, cross-cultural tensions and systemic upheaval. Hosted by the Department of Romance Languages and the Center for Foreign Languages, the Festival promises to spark discussion with its theme, “Faith, Hope, Identity: Religious and Cultural Diversity in Contemporary French Film.” Cantet’s film, a winner of the 2008 Palme d’Or award, is based on the best-selling book written by François Bégaudeau. Bégaudeau, who crafted his book upon his experiences teaching at a low-income school in Paris, plays the part of the similarly situated François Marin.

The film follows a school year in Marin’s classroom, replete with class conflicts, ethnic adversaries and raging hormones. Bégaudeau’s formidable performance sheds light on the stereotypical smug yet self-conscious young teacher, and is duly matched by the raw vigor of his students, played in large part by amateur actors.

Over the course of the school year, the classroom becomes a battleground in which the students confront the social systems of the outside world that dictate their status in life. Cantet masterfully renders life inside school walls with unrelenting, claustrophobic close-ups. With as much facility as Cantet documents these literal and figurative authoritative structures, the students she films bar no holds in tearing them down. Marin’s paltry demands for respect are met with insolent sneers on behalf of his teenage students.

The rules of their pompous teacher prove the easiest to break for the multicultural middle-schoolers; with a palpable dynamism, they question not only his youth and his race, but also the systems he has come to stand for. The thin veil of civility that allows Marin the semblance of control invariably gives way to deep-seated tensions. Innocently posed questions in class about archaic French grammar cut to the quick of issues regarding French imperialism. Conversations about soccer teams soon escalate to arguments about French identity, nationalism and immigration. As his students repeatedly challenge his authority, Marin descends into a desperate struggle to recapture their respect.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about the film is also what is most unsatisfying about it: Entre Les Murs refuses to deliver on the promises of its genre. As Katarzyna Pieprzak, associate professor of French and comparative literature, pointed out in her introduction, one might be tempted to place Entre Les Murs alongside other white-teacher-meets-urban-school plotlines such as Freedom Writers and Dangerous Minds. At first, Marin seems as wide-eyed and well-meaning as any clichéd plotline would have us believe. Yet as it progresses, the film makes clear that Marin is not nearly as inspired so much as he is oblivious. He answers students’ self-doubt with sarcastic quips and propels their fits of anger with those of his own. Slowly and unobtrusively, Entre Les Murs challenges its viewers to cheer for the misbehavior of insolent students and decry the feeble power trips of their 20-something-year-old teacher. In this way, Entre Les Murs denies the viewer the satisfaction of fulfilled expectations and in doing so, subtly pairs the demands of Marin’s students with demands of its own. In the same way the teenagers scratch at the outmoded structures that classify them, Entre Les Murs cracks wide the walls of cinematic convention.

Entre Les Murs was the first of five films that the Festival will screen over consecutive Monday evenings at 7 p.m. at Images Cinema. The series, sponsored by the Tournées Film Festival, will continue to highlight the intersections of religion, citizenship and humanity in modern day France.