Thursday, December 18, 2008

Beyond the walls [Entre Les Murs]

Entre Les Murs (aka: Between the Walls; aka The Class)
Grade: A
Cast: Francois Begaudeau
Director: Laurent Cantet

If you’re Christmas shopping for your favorite film critic, give him three good films from a single country and let him declare a “New Wave.”

There is nothing a film critic more likes to do. Yet the recent proliferation of supposed New Waves obscures one fact – the majority of classic films have come from two nations, the United States of America and France.

While Italy and England and Japan pitch in, these two nations consistently produce the greatest share of excellence. They also seem to trade decades. When Hollywood was down in the early 1960s, the French New Wave filled the gap. The American indie shaped the nineties, a down period for French film.

In most eyes, that down period has ended, and French film is once again peaking. The French resurgence was consecrated this year by the selection of the classroom drama Entre Les Murs as the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes. Root, root, root for the home team – it was the first Frog victory in more than 20 years. In film years, that seems almost as long as the French army’s last victory. Under Joan of Arc.

Portraying a year in the life of a middle school in a tough Parisian immigrant neighborhood, Laurent Cantet’s feature isn’t a documentary. But it looks like one. And it feels like one. The students are real students, chosen from volunteers at a real Parisian school. The teacher Francois Marin is played by Francois Begaudeau, a longtime educator who wrote the screenplay and the memoir on which it is based. The Socratian teaching methods that he demonstrates are the same that he used as a teacher. The situations often are based on real events. This is perhaps as close as one can come to real life and remain technically fictional. For verisimilitude junkies, it’s hard to get a more powerful hit.

Entre Les Murs literally means “Between the Walls” (although in English countries, it is going by the title The Class). We join Francois briefly at a coffee shop on the first day of school. Thirty seconds later, he and we enter the school doors. The camera never leaves. All drama is generated within the school grounds by its residents, and the resolutions take place there, as well.

We’re conditioned to the Stand and Deliver tropes of the high school film. This one only occasionally succumbs to those rules. It finds drama in what one might think are mundane details of school life – staff meetings, parent conferences, philosophical disagreements. Most of all, the drama comes from the interaction in the classroom, from the give and take between the teacher and 20 curious minds. Only towards the end does the film take on a traditional schoolhouse dramatic conflict, the disciplining of the school’s biggest miscreant. Yet the final showdown erupts not from drugs or guns or gangs, but from an overreaction to a teacher’s moment of weakness. Even the needed discipline presents unexpected moral questions for the teaching staff.

With its methodical commitment to getting things right, the film captures the routine joys and frustrations of teaching. It presents both the classroom and the emerging multicultural French society as organic entities. It gives us the most realistic, least sentimental sense of the true profession that we’re likely to find onscreen.


nick plowman said...


I'm so jealous. So glad you liked it though.

Alexander Coleman said...

I've been looking forward to this since its victory at Cannes. It's quite satisfying to see you so excitedly lining up for it. I cannot wait to see it myself.

K. Bowen said...

It's a really interesting film. And while watching it, sitting there in the middle of a faculty meeting discussion about the coffee machine or whatever, you wonder why it's so compelling. And yet the totality of it is breathtaking at times.