Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Talking, and lots of it, permitted in this "Class"

THE CLASS (Entre les murs)

directed by Lauren Cantet
based on the book Entre les murs by François Begaudeau
starring a lot of non-actors, including Begaudeau

There's a lot of talking in “The Class,” and most of it leads to no resolution. That’s the hallmark of a French film, and it may sound maddening to varying degrees, depending on your tolerance for dialogue that doesn’t directly advance the plot. But there’s no denying that this willingness to follow the natural ebb and flow of conversation tends to produce remarkably nuanced films with far more complex social and character dynamics than their American counterparts.

This quality crosses all genres of film, and “The Class” is a perfect case in point. In its broadest outlines, it follows a bright, dedicated young (white) teacher at a minority-heavy junior high school over the course of a year, focusing on his efforts to do right by his assigned crop of diverse, unruly students. Yet it stands out from the umpteen movies Hollywood’s turned out that fit that description, in that it contains not a single moment of schmaltz, false melodrama, or inspirational speechmaking. What it offers instead is a close-up view of one teacher’s day-to-day struggle to keep these restless, prematurely jaded adolescents in line and at least marginally invested in what he has to say. Nothing about “The Class” will move impressionable young viewers to rush into public school teaching; in fact, it will probably resonate most deeply with those who are already teachers in similar circumstances, especially those who have tried to “make a difference” and succeeded only partially—or not at all.

Director Laurent Cantet takes a documentary-style approach to the film, an adaptation of the book Entre les murs (Between the walls) by François Bégaudeau, which he based on his own experience as a teacher. Bégaudeau, who helped write the screenplay, also stars as the teacher-protagonist, François Marin, and proves a natural screen presence. The film was shot at a real school in Paris (though not Bégaudeau’s) using the actual students, who mostly played themselves or versions of themselves, and the script was in large part either improvised or discussed collaboratively with the students. This no doubt accounts for its authentic, unforced feel, and a fly-on-the-wall sense of really being in a classroom as an entire school year almost imperceptibly passes by. Indeed, if the film has a weakness, it’s how close that sense verges on claustrophobia, as the camera almost never moves beyond the walls of the school. But that, of course, is in some ways the very point of the entire exercise, as the original title of both book and film suggest, and serves only to underscore the fact that in real life, even the most motivated teacher can do very little about the forces that affect a student outside the classroom.

All this is not to imply that “The Class” is overly remote or cynical in its perspective. Quite the contrary, it’s far more thought-provoking, and its few emotional punches more effective, than a more sentimental film would be precisely because of its restraint. While some of the acerbic back-and-forth between Marin and his students is amusing, nearly every such exchange reflects the larger social and cultural frictions that extend outside the school and are never explicitly addressed. These frictions also play out among the students themselves, and not always in ways the casual viewer might expect or even immediately recognize. Even Marin himself is caught off-guard at times, and being only human, makes human errors that unintentionally results in serious problems for one of his most charismatic yet most troubled students, a powder keg named Souleymane. That narrative arc ultimately leads to a subtly affecting scene in which Souleymane is forced to act as a translator between his mother and the school disciplinary board—and which, without being in any way overplayed or overwrought, crystallizes all the tensions that the film has been quietly observing all along.

While there’s no feel-good ending either to Souleymane’s story or to Monsieur Marin’s year, the film concludes with a truly lovely last scene that shakes the kaleidoscope again and comes up with yet another view of the sociocultural mélange at their school, and one that carries a tinge of hope. For even as “The Class” refuses to paper over the gulfs that divide teachers and students, it also delivers a constant reminder that some people will always strive to bridge them.



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