Film review – The Class (2008)

François Marin (François Bégaudeau)
François Marin (François Bégaudeau)

A simple description of The Class (in France it was titled Entre les murs, which translates into English literally as Between the Walls) may not make it sound all that appealing, let alone sound like a Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winning film. Nevertheless, The Class is absolutely riveting cinema. Set in a high school in one of the lower socio-economic parts of Paris, The Class depicts the interactions between François Marin, a French teacher, and his students over the course of one year. While specific storylines are developed and followed during the film, it does not feel like a scripted film. The performances are so natural that you could easily mistake The Class for a documentary.

Part of the films freshness stems from the fact that François is played by François Bégaudeau, an actual teacher who wrote the semi-autobiographic book that the film is based on. Non-professional actors, most of whom use their actual name in the film, play the students and many scenes are improvised. The students are a multiracial mix of frustrated cynics and every day for François is a battle to maintain their discipline, attention and respect. Several scenes are simply showdowns between the students trying to see how far they can push François while he must somehow maintain the upper hand without ever coming across as patronising or insulting. François is not perfect and by no means does he conform to the stereotypical inspirational teacher that is popular in Hollywood. Nevertheless, throughout the film he emerges as someone who genuinely wants what is best for the students. The extent to which he does persevere with them is remarkable. Likewise, many of the students slowly reveal hidden depths making them recognisable and sympathetic characters, despite their frequently infuriating reactions and attitudes.

The Class also depicts school life for the teachers when they are away from the students. One scene depicts a new teacher breaking down in the staffroom. He is full of frustration and rage but the other teachers just quietly watch his outburst. They know exactly what he is feeling but also know that he has to pull himself together if he is going to survive. There is also a wonderful staff-meeting scene where a heated discussion about the value of a student demerit point system becomes a heated discussion about the staff coffee machine. However, the really powerful scenes belong to François and his students. It is a genuinely uplifting moment when a problem student, encouraged by François, starts to pursue a new way of expressing himself. Then there is the moment when François makes one misguided comment and unleashes a tirade of scorn and indignation from the class.

The Class is an engaging piece of cinéma vérité that should be compulsory viewing for anybody who has ever questioned the value of teachers, especially those in the state system. This is a frank depiction of a typical classroom and a revealing portrait of what school life is like for teachers and students today. It is also an excellent film that will hold your attention from start to finish.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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