The Class (Entre les murs)

2008-12-19 (Limited release)

On the first day of the semester, Mr. Marin (François Bégaudeau) sits down with his fellow teachers for one of those round-the-room exercises, where each newcomer says his or her name and area of expertise. It’s the kind of introductory exercise that teachers tend to put their students through, a way to get people talking and break ice, filling up the awkward first minutes with forgettable talk and instantaneous evaluation.

It’s also an effective way for The Class (Entre les murs) to demonstrate that first days at school can be as nervous-making and fraught for teachers — first-time or veteran — as for students. This premise is key to the movie’s look at how school works, as a socializing institution, a framework for learning not just mathematics and literature, but also how to live with others, to understand difference and construct identities, both individual and collective. The school in The Class offers a particularly vivid site for these lessons, in its ethnic and class diversities, as well as in the interactions between students and teachers.

Moreover, the film details these stories through an unusual structure. Starting from a book by Bégaudeau that recounts his own experiences as a teacher, director Laurent Cantet and co-writer Robin Campillo outlined a basic story, then invited the cast, drawn from adults and student-actors at a high school in Paris’ 20th arrondissement, to participate in weekly workshops. These sessions helped the group to forge a plot and set of relationships, shaped by Mr. Marin’s perspective while incorporating those of other “characters” as well. Combing documentary and fiction methods, the film is a fascinating hybrid, both expressive and performative, investigative and observational.

This mix of effects is especially apt, given the subject matter. A classroom is always in flux, with personal dynamics changing day to day, power dynamics at risk, and stories abundant. During each classroom session, the filmmakers devised to use three cameras, one on Marin, the others taking in the room and ready to focus on students who might demand attention. As the first days commences, Marin immediately embodies tensions that are familiar and not. He seeks at first to establish authority, a sense of control over the lesson plan and students’ behavior), but, almost in the same moment, to solicit trust and openness. Marin is initially self-confident and neo-Socratic, his questions gently probing, encouraging students to speak their minds while also, of course, maintaining respect — for him and each other.

It’s inevitable that expectations will collide with uncertainties, as Marin’s students test him and themselves. In constructing grammatical examples, Marin comes up with the same old-fashioned textbook names he’s learned, like “Bill.” When a student wonders out loud why he uses “whitey names,” he protests in a kneejerk way, observing that if he actually tried to use names representing all the backgrounds in the class, “It would never end.” Marin’s dependence on forms and actions he calls “normal” doesn’t seem a sufficient rationale, however, and it’s not long before his students are revealing the different sort of “normal” they experience in their homes and among one another, their contexts ranging from Christian to Muslim, working class to middle class, male to female, and gay to straight.

For their part, the students remain occasions for Marin’s contemplation, their home lives glimpsed only as their parents come to meet with Marin on parent-teacher day, or in an especially vivid scene, a photo essay one student offers as his “autobiography” assignment: dark, close, beautifully composed shots of his mother, his friends, his apartment. In class, they pose a series of challenges for the teacher. Souleymane (Franck Keita) poses one kind when, caught acting out in class, he changes the subject. “People say,” Souleymane begins, “you like men.” The classroom goes quiet with anticipation. To be called homosexual isn’t an insult, the boy continues, insisting he only wants to know if it’s true. But the episode is less about truth than boundaries, their shifting over time and the unknowable stakes behind each encounter.

While Marin finds it easy to support the stereotypically model-student Wei (Wei Huang), even through difficulties, he’s less sure about how to handle one of his favorite students, Khoumba (Rachel Régulier). As she is increasingly reluctant to participate in class discussions and distracted from her work, Marin worries, but can’t find a solution. His efforts to communicate with Khoumba tilt between inept and earnest, her rebuffs having less to do with him than he can guess, but difficult to absorb nonetheless. “I don’t want to read,” she dissents during one class, at which point Marin tries to correct what he sees as her “insolence.” “I have the right to ask you to read,” he sputters, the other students watching, waiting to see how the contest falls out.

Such scenes are provocative and edgy, and completely mesmerizing — even though nothing much happens, and, after all, they’ll all be back in the same room, even in their same seats, the next day. This is how high school works, despite the movie versions of same, where kids act out or find romance or teachers serve as noble mentors to be recalled in later years. In the moment, in the classroom day after day, students and teacher create taut, meaningful, long-lasting mini-storylines. For all of them, much is at stake, their slightest glances and word choices full of potential to change their futures.

This much becomes acutely clear in Marin’s encounters with Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani). Outspoken and self-assured, she’s a student member of a panel that writes up end-of-year evaluations, for students and for teachers. Though the two student members are not allowed to speak in the room, their presence can be distracting and even unnerving for the teachers, whose own careers are affected by decisions made and rumors spread.

Marin is never not the movie’s point of entry, even when he is caught up by his own anger and prejudice: specifically, he calls Esmeralda a “skank” during a heated argument. Here he seems to have exposed exactly what’s troubling about school systems, the inherent trust in adults to behave as such. Here, young people’s self-images are informed, daily, by their on-site authorities’ attitudes, whether negative or positive, rebellious or conformist. It’s possible to see in the film’s repeated return to Marin’s extremely limited view a confirmation of his own self-image, his ostensibly good heart and self-congratulatory arrogance. It’s also possible to see through him, as his students do.

RATING 5 / 10