I was finally able to see the french film The Class (officially Entre les murs) by Laurent Cantent last weekend. It won the Palm d’Or at Cannes in 2008. From the Wikipedia, it’s based on the semi-autobiographical novel by François Bégaudeau. It was about his experiences as a literature teacher in an inner city middle school in Paris.
The film was riveting and I felt this bizarre nervousness the entire time. I was tense. Why? Maybe it was because these young teenagers actually are annoying and intimidating. This hits close to home because my wife was originally going to school to be an elementary school teacher. She’d give me horror stories about how the kids were just downright nasty and evil.
The Class was very compelling because it’s “half-documentary, half-drama.” Which to me, really means 100% drama with some improvised, documentary-inspired parts. The teacher was really the teacher, and the students were really the students. The acting was very improvised and that’s something you’ll come to learn that I’m very drawn to in the films I watch. I love realism. Some would compare this to films by the Dardenne Brothers and I would agree with that. Gritty, hand-held camera work, almost no soundtrack at all. I can’t remember any music in The Class, but I could be completely wrong on that.
What made this film unsettling to watch was that it never really put a positive spin on things. Things in the class would go from bad to worse and I couldn’t help but feel bad for the teachers. I just wanted to slap the students sometimes. They would do everything they can to purposely fuck with authority and it makes me so incredibly frustrated! At one point they brought up a rumor that the teacher was gay. Then the teacher has to try and diffuse that conversation and continue teaching or defend himself. The kids won’t let it die until he finally defends himself – which he does cleverly retort back to the students with good responses. I don’t know how I would have handled it. But it seemed no matter what he did, it never seemed to cease. The students moved on to the next distraction and learning was like shoving vegetables down an ornery eight year old’s throat.
And that’s how the film goes. It doesn’t try to show the students (or the teacher) maturing or coming of age. It simply presents a slice of life and moves on. It also never shows the teacher’s life outside of the class. You never get to see his personal life. The ending, which I won’t spoil, is perfect in this regard. My most prominent feeling at the end was relief. Relief that I could finally get a break from those kids and not have to see them again. Teaching is hard in general. Teaching kids who don’t want to learn and forced to be at public school is nearly impossible. I really lived in the teacher’s shoes in this film and it felt authentic and real. Just what I like.
If there is one complaint, its that I wish the film didn’t ignore the “good kids.” Not every kid in the class was a disruption. There were quiet kids who probably really wanted to learn. During the moments of chaos in the classroom where a few students were really, really disruptive (you’ll see), the film never shows you what’s happening on “the other side.” The good kids have got to be pissed and wish these idiots would let it go. But that’s real life for ya, the quiet kids who don’t do much kind of just go unnoticed. They’re not interesting right? I’d like to see a film about them.