Eugene Weekly : Movies : 3.12.09


Chalk Talk
A documentary-like look at middle school
by Jason Blair

THE CLASS (ENTRE LES MURS): Directed by Laurent Cantet. Written by François Bégaudeau, Robin Campillo and Laurent Cantet. Cinematography, Pierre Milon. Starring François Bégaudeau. Sony Pictures Classics, 2008. PG-13. 128 minutes.

François Bégaudeau in The Class

The Class, an extraordinary drama about a public middle school in Paris, begins, fittingly enough, on the first day of school. Our hero, French instructor François (François Bégaudeau), is young, white and effeminate; his students, be-hoodied and tattooed, are Asian, African and Middle Eastern. When François defines “succulent” by using it in a sentence — “Bill enjoys a succulent cheeseburger” — Esmeralda pounces on his use of the name Bill. “You always use whitey names,” she observes. “Honky names.” This early confrontation outlines the themes of the film, which include language, culture and identity, while alerting us we’re a long way from Dangerous Minds, let alone Mr. Holland’s Opus, that truffle of triumphalism. Just wait until François tries to explain verb tenses, including the imperfect subjunctive. They end up asking if he’s gay, which isn’t surprising. The surprise is that they ask him gently.

The Class, then, is about more than a group of kids looking for trouble. It may be the most convincing school drama ever made. For awhile, François fends off their rat-a-tat inquiries — The Class has been described as a verbal fencing match — by resorting to his considerable gift for flipping their questions on their head. (When asked if he’s gay, he replies, “Is that a problem for you?”) In its early chapters, The Class belongs to François, an actual teacher on whose novel the screenplay is based. We observe François running for cover under heavy verbal fire, only to regain control with an assertive counterattack, raising the question of whether even gifted teachers can maintain order in today’s public schools. But under the patient guidance of director Laurent Cantet (Time Out), who uses long takes to create the impression of a documentary, The Class begins to raise another, perhaps more difficult subject, one with more subtle implications: Is this education system prepared to handle an increasingly diverse population? While well-educated, clever and compassionate, is François qualified to teach a group of students more familiar with the immigrant experience than with grammar?

To appreciate The Class, winner of the Palm d’Or at Cannes and a nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, you need not be intimate with the rhythms of a classroom. But if you follow the film’s internal rhythms, other school dramas feel like child’s play. The movements of The Class are so gradual, its pleasures and frustrations so understated, that you have no idea whatsoever where it’s taking you, a quality I found especially enjoyable given its scarcity in today’s films. When conflict finally emerges in the form of Souleymane (Franck Keïta), a troubled boy from Mali, the incident, after so much classroom talk, feels life-threatening — and François may be responsible for provoking it. Having inspired his class to think critically and speak clearly, François now faces his students turning against him. Whether he can recover is the great final act of The Class.

At one point, François asks his students to write a personal essay in the vein of Anne Frank. They all protest the idea, mostly on the basis that they’re too young to be interesting. “What you feel is interesting,” says François to inspire them. In a lesser film, you’d expect a chorus of whoops and catcalls. In The Class, one of the quietest students raises her hand. She says François is only interested in their feelings for the sake of the assignment. After a brief debate, François admits she’s right. He says, “Maybe I am exaggerating a little.” In that moment, it’s both the kindest and the safest thing he can say.

The Class opens Friday, March 13, at the Bijou.