Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Class, What Takes Place Between Parisian Classroom Walls

Although the English title of Laurent Cantet’s seventh film The Class explicates the film’s subject, a 9th grade school class, it lacks the greater symbolism of the original title Entre les Murs (literally “between the walls” in English.) This spatial reference, lost in translation, indicates the importance of the actual classroom that houses all the frustration and wonder of the fourteen year-olds who study French with Mr. Bégaudeau. (In fact, only three scenes of the film take place outside the classroom and they are still within the confines of the high school.) In this way the film maintains its focus on the school environment and how the structure affects the teens and their teachers, and only rarely alludes to what might occur outside of school walls.
If you did not know, you would probably believe that The Class was a documentary. The students are expertly photographed, usually with a hand-held camera. But unlike Rachel’s Getting Married which desperately attempted realism with a whip-cam and shaky shooting, the camera floats and effortlessly focuses on acne-faced, braces-wearing, rebellious teens who appear so typically proud and confused, that the line between fiction and documentary disappears. Though neo-realist films have often cast non-professional actors, an entire cast of fourteen year-old non-professionals playing themselves in high school, trumps any realism an older person off the street might offer. In addition, the principal teacher is played by the film’s screenwriter, a real teacher who taught in Paris and penned a best selling novel about the experience before making it into a script. So François Bégaudeau, like most of his students, shares his name with his character, and performs with all the honesty this suggests.
It is astonishing that one feature film about a high school class in Paris can address so many of France’s contemporary problems in less than two hours; the French identity struggles to be defined by kids whose relationship to France is complicated by immigration, community, and a non-ethnic authority figure. Although Mr. Bégaudeau’s class is relaxed, violence ensues when one student refuses to use the polite address of “vous” with his teacher, demonstrating the importance of language in maintaining order. Of course language is central in a French class – Mr. Bégaudeau’s challenge is to make proper French relevant to kids who do not hear French spoken “correctly” outside of the classroom.
Never fear that The Class is reminiscent of Hollywood white teacher in a rough neighborhood films Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers. There is no happy ending where the children realize their worth and set goals, and there is no sad ending where the students despair in self-destructive activities. The film simply presents a year of high school existence and allows the audience to analyze this chapter’s greater significance. The last shot of the film leaves the audience with a chill, the classroom where the children and teacher have exchanged knowledge and emotions is for the first time in the film empty; the space swells and reverberates with the transient meaning of all that has taken place between the walls.

1 comment:

Zak said...

I just watched Dangerous Minds. It made me laugh.