At the Movies

Michael Wood

The Class, known in France as Entre les murs, literally ‘between the walls’, more colloquially ‘inside’, as of a prison or a fortress or a city, is an intelligent, subdued film that sets out to trouble us. It certainly succeeded with me, but I’m not entirely sure I got the right trouble. There is a neat little irony in the movie’s being nominated for an Oscar as best foreign film because it was foreign before it reached the Academy’s attention; it’s all about foreignness in France.

I could see what we were supposed to worry about – the difficult details of multiculturalism in a society of supposedly universal culture, varieties of Frenchness in excess of what the term can plausibly include – but these are good old liberal worries, a solid comfort in their way, familiar questions we can feel good about pondering. After all, it’s not as if anyone is asking us to answer them, and we could be doing something else with our time: watching a movie that was more fun, for example. But I was (mildly) worried about something else, and (even more mildly) worried about this worry. This could be a sign of the real success of the film, which is directed by Laurent Cantet, but it feels more like an interesting slippage.

I felt something similar about Cantet’s previous movie, Heading South, in which Charlotte Rampling leads, in no uncertain terms, a group of North American women looking for (and paying for) sexual pleasure in Duvalier’s Haiti. The women get less and less casual about their casual affairs, and one of their young men is killed for a reason that has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with abuses of power by the government and its friends. The women don’t know the reason, and therefore don’t know it is unrelated to them; and we are invited to make all kinds of connection between a violent Caribbean dictatorship and a mild money-based sexual imperialism. One of the policemen investigating the killing says, ‘The (female) tourist never dies,’ ‘La touriste, elle ne meurt jamais,’ which sounds like an indictment. But the film ends on lyrical images of sad and lonely women, as if all that matters in the world is the persistence of desire in ageing bodies.

The Class is based on an autobiographical work by François Bégaudeau, who plays a version of himself, a schoolteacher called François Marin, with a likeable and slightly improbable mixture of awkwardness and ease. The story concerns a year in the life of a class of 13 and 14-year-old children in a school in the 20th arrondissement in Paris, catering largely (in the film exclusively) to immigrant pupils, and the actors have been recruited from such a school and diligently trained by Cantet. The effect is amazing, not because the children act naturally – they act unnaturally, the way children naturally do – but because they so thoroughly inhabit the screen. When the bell rings and they scramble out of the classroom, you don’t feel they are going anywhere. They don’t have another life: they must be waiting in the movie equivalent of the wings for the next take. And when a few of their parents and relatives appear (five to be precise), they manifestly come from some world the movie doesn’t know. The movie knows only the classroom, and even the occasional meetings of teachers or conversations among them take place in a socially floating limbo. At one point it is made clear that if a boy in Marin’s class is expelled (as he finally is), he won’t be transferred to another school by the authorities, but sent back to Africa by his angry father. We are supposed to think this is a fate worse than death, but the very idea of an outside world is too abstract for the threat to feel real. It would be enough to expel the boy from the classroom for him to cease to exist.

Outside this room all is stereotype. The characters are well acted but lamely written. There is the strict disciplinarian (male) teacher, the teacher who breaks down because he can’t take the kids’ disorderly behaviour any more, the nice (female) teacher who thinks you’ve got to draw the line somewhere, the harassed but decent school principal. There are the baffled and eager Chinese parents, the stern and dignified African mother. There are stereotypes in the classroom too – the well-intentioned, often frustrated teacher, the uppity Arab girl, the sulky handsome African boy, the diligent Asian, and so on – but they are only starting points, and each of these roles turns into more than a role. Towards the end of the film, in a gesture critics have found pretentious, a sop to French culture, or more precisely to a French idea of European culture, the Arab girl, Esmeralda, having pretended she learned nothing at all during the whole school year, suddenly remembers one book she picked up at home and did quite like: Plato’s Republic. She gives a sensible account of Plato’s main themes, and Marin is amazed – too amazed even to be pleased. But the point the film wants to make here is not about culture: it’s about the relation between student and teacher. Esmeralda has been obnoxious throughout, snotty and smirking and dismissive, and unlike the other students has shown nothing but contempt for Marin. He has reciprocated, even to the point of losing his temper in class and calling Esmeralda and her friend des pétasses, generally translated as ‘sluts’ or ‘tarts’, but presumably having something etymologically to do with farting, or farting around. He claims he didn’t say the girls were pétasses, only that they were behaving like pétasses, but you’d have to be a French teacher (of French) to think this argument was tenable or relevant. The insult causes a sort of battle in the classroom, resulting in the expulsion of Souleymane, the African boy. All that is over now, though, and after she has announced her reading experience, Esmeralda smiles with triumph, but also, for the first time, with something like affection for Marin. She says: ‘For a pétasse, that’s not bad, huh?’ She is winning a round but recognising the value of his game, and for once she is not simply exploiting the weakness of his position.

We see two kinds of class, essentially. One is about the French language, and in the film’s best scene Marin tries helplessly to convince his pupils that the past subjunctive is worth knowing about. Some of them are so far from any sort of mastery of the language that the subject is meaningless to them. Others know how to misuse the subjunctive with some style, and still others employ it impeccably but are convinced of its uselessness. Nobody talks like that, they say, in unconscious homage to Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot. Even Marin can’t argue for the value of what he’s trying to teach, except by a feeble argument along the lines of knowing the rules before you start to break them. This argument isn’t always feeble, of course, but it’s not much of a case for the subjunctive. The real issue here is the syllabus. The teacher is trapped in it, and the pupils see it as tyranny for the sake of tyranny. The whole scene is both funny and desolate, going nowhere but peopled by characters who can talk to each other, even if mainly at cross-purposes.

The other kind of class has the pupils reading The Diary of Anne Frank and trying their hands at self-portraits. This is a complete mess. It’s not just that the pupils are no good at the exercise. They are embarrassed and oppressed by it, and Marin doesn’t understand why they are being difficult. He manages to describe Souleymane’s digital photographs as a sort of personal essay and an occasion for praise; but even this seems patronising, and the whole game is invasive and pointless. I’m not sure Marin or Cantet sees this scene in this way, and this doubt is reinforced by the film’s rather ungainly narrative climax, where Souleymane is expelled against Marin’s wishes but because of his actions. Marin, the boy’s defender for most of the time, has earlier dragged him off to the principal’s office for a scolding because – hold it – the boy used the familiar second person, said ‘tu’ to his teacher. He said a lot of other offensive things as well, but the failure of grammatical respect seems to be the key thing. Marin has lots of energy and wit and generally gets on well with his students. But he can’t, it seems, tell a good rule from a bad one; or a rule from a commandment.

Cantet wants us to see Marin as a good man who is trying to mix friendliness and understanding with firmness, and who is human enough to lose his grip now and then. This picture is completely convincing. But then who are the pupils? They begin to look like the Haitians in Heading South: denizens of a world of trouble no outsider can understand. They are lively and often witty individuals, but in the light of the social problem the film seeks to address it’s hard to see them as anything more than this good man’s daily difficulty; at least it’s hard to see the film making a case for them as something more. And yet it does make such a case, whether it wants to or not.

What the film tells us, in shot after shot of these engaging, unruly, unwilling learners, is that they understand the politics of the classroom in a way that Marin does not. When Khoumba, an African girl, the star of the class and certainly possessed of the best mind in the movie, refuses to perform an elementary task, Marin blows his top, outraged. He is the teacher, she has to do what he says. She says she’s not the only person in the class, he can pick on someone else. The film feels really confused at this point. We’re supposed to like her, even if she is being awkward at the moment, but we’re supposed to sympathise deeply with him in his bafflement. Why should we? She is simply registering the fact of power, resisting it in the only way she can. He thinks it’s a matter of discipline but doesn’t understand that in his situation discipline is power. He could be less agreeable than he is and do a better job if he understood this structure as well as his pupils do. Rules of decent behaviour, for example, are quite different from personal charm and from throwing one’s disciplinary weight about. Different from grammar too. And if the movie could let go of its emphasis on Marin’s niceness and bafflement, look harder at the social fact and treat the liberal dilemma less tenderly, I could stop worrying.