REVIEW: Entre les murs [The Class] [2008]

“We’re not animals”

The Palme d’Or winning film Entre les murs [The Class] couldn’t be more deserving of the award, or the chance at winning an Oscar to go along with it. Star François Bégaudeau writes a screenplay, based on his own book and experiences, about the trials and tribulations caused by the oftentimes volatile relationship between teacher and student. This is not only a great film, but also, in my opinion, a very important one. Its cinema verité style lends a documentary feel to the proceedings, inhabited by people playing characters with their own names, mostly, if not all, surely amateurs to the trade. What occurs as a result is a real life glimpse at the current state of education and children who are so much older at 14 and 15 then we remember ourselves being. It’s no longer a job to mold minds and create a world where anything is possible; now teachers must multi-task as security guard, judge, friend, educator, and whatever else might come up. With computers and absentee parents, not to mention the language barriers of a multi-racial school in France, inhabited by refugees and immigrants, these kids grow very self-sufficient and insolent in their interactions with adults. The line is so thin and the rules so skewed, The Class shows the kind of tightrope act being held accountable for a group of kids’ futures can be while getting no support, either monetarily or from parents.

What director Laurent Cantet does so well is take Bégaudeau’s tales and show the audience both sides. It isn’t always about the teacher and his difficulty reaching the children, it isn’t always a lack of support from the parents who would rather pawn their kid off on this publicly paid babysitter, but it’s also the fear and shame the kids may feel, unable to do any better because they don’t think they can. The school in which the film takes place contains people of all races and backgrounds, joined together in a bid to move on to a good vocational school. Every teacher looks at each other’s class list, telling the new ones who the troublemakers are as well as the handful of good ones. Each child has a chip on his/her shoulder as a survival trait, not necessarily because they are bad kids.

When you look at Carl, a transfer who was expelled from his previous school, you will see the intellect and maturity to viewpoints someone his age can have. To acknowledge the fact that while he may behave now doesn’t mean he’s been tamed or cured, it just means he’s found a more comfortable environment, is an interesting idea. He will hold back his temper and even try to help prevent a fight in the classroom, but he does it because he wants to. While they may understand these feelings and real world attitudes, however, they are still too young to separate those emotions and manifest them constructively. But rather than the teachers seeing this and trying to mold it, they think too much of themselves—that they have been the cure—staying on the surface and never delving deep enough to notice the problem lying latent in the background. By moving on so soon they miss the opportunity to prevent a future conflict once the sleeping giant awakes. Yet you can’t really blame them, because they have a class of some twenty personalities all clashing together. To move on from one to the next is a natural reaction, and a necessary one.

You really get a sense of duality from the film, showing how similar both sides are. So much is spoken about respect, but shouldn’t the educator respect the child as well? You are the adult, you are the one with the sense of self-control; there should be no slips of the tongue, no name calling, no matter what. I love the fact that these teachers speak with each other to decide on a punishment point scale. The pros and cons are weighed. Sure a system is needed to clearly show consequences, but the opposite view also holds true. If you tell a child they have six points until judgment, you basically give them a free pass until five points, when the kid could stop, accumulate commendations, and start all over again. It is a flawed system, and always will be, much the same with disciplinary hearings. Couldn’t you argue that having the ability to expel a child just gives you the out of not having to deal with the problem? As an educator, your job is to reach these children, give them a sense of stability, but if you can just punt the problem away, what incentive do you have to actually tackle the problem? It is such a cyclical world that people will get bounced around and never helped—teachers feeling invincible and in the right, children feeling abandoned and eventually falling deeper and deeper into the abyss of ambivalence.

Credit to all involved because it couldn’t have been easy. It would be intriguing to know how much of what the kids in the film say was scripted or not. They all really feel as though they go to school together and live in this world, everyone playing himself, essentially, except for Franck Keita as the troubled Souleyman—the key to the entire story. He is the epitome of what an intelligent child without any drive can be. To see the good, (excelling at a photo self-portrait), and the bad helps to express his humanity. With all the potential in the world finally coming through only to be pushed back when things get tough, the question of pride and nationality show face, turning on an intrinsic defense mechanism superceding the drive to better oneself. It’s not only the kids that excel, though, but also the teachers. My favorite scene is probably of one that comes into the faculty lounge utterly defeated. His rant is so on the nose and true that no one else in the room can say anything, because they all feel the same. It’s a powerful moment, trying desperately to see the point of going on in an environment that seems so hopeless.

In my opinion, the only way to rectify it all is to bring us back to the power structure of teacher and student. We have become so fearful of parents and failure and responsibility that we’ve become friends with those we are supposed to be educating. Once you build a rapport and relationship, becoming more equal than superior, you are in a world of trouble. The principal is portrayed as a weak man, unable to come to a decision, always asking the others for a majority rule. Why do his job and make a choice when he can just say the “staff agreed”? And honestly … student representatives at a staff meeting discussing grades and behavior in class? How can you ever think they won’t tell their friends everything that happened? A teacher should have the freedom to speak his mind about a student, to voice an opinion that maybe they’ve hit their ceiling and need a new angle to be taken. But once the child finds out, all sense of self-worth is gone; all sense of accomplishment out the window. If the person who is supposed to be on your side, helping you grow up, loses faith, what more is there to strive for?

Entre les murs is a heartbreaking story of the future of our planet. It shows us the smart kids mixed in with the troublemakers, to see a teacher’s time divided by both factions, never able to push the good kids to challenge them and never able to reach the “bad” ones because they need singular attention. François Bégaudeau is amazing at playing himself, the conflicted teacher that is only too human. When Louise and Esmeralda betray him, I would have acted the same way—wrongly—too. A person can only take so much before the pile gets so high, the obstacles so many, that breaking is unavoidable. However, there are those other stories of Wey beating his language barrier to excel or my favorite character Khoumba and her quest for respect. She has the gumption to write a note, so eloquently written and honest that you can’t fault her actions without reprimanding Bégaudeau. The schoolhouse dynamic has been forever changed and I for one know I could never stomach being a teacher in it. The rules have mutated and I credit those who keep at it so much more now. It’s a thankless job with little support, and its rewards are becoming fewer and fewer each year as society becomes more jaded and disenchanted.

Entres les murs [The Class] 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

[1] Wei Huang as Wei, Esmeralda Ouertani as Sandra, and Rachel Regulier as Khoumba. Photo taken by Pierre Milon, 2007, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights reserved.
[2] Francois Begaudeau as Francois, Franck Keita as Souleyman, and Boubacar Toure as Boubacar. Photo taken by Pierre Milon, 2007, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights reserved.


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