The Class (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)

film_class_sm.jpgAll adolescents are concerned with forming and asserting their adult identities, but the students in The Class have more to deal with than most.








Laurent Cantet’s The Class (Entre les Murs) is a sneaky film. At first, it seems entirely prosaic, composed of a succession of handheld shots which follow teachers and students during the trivial activities and encounters which constitute most of any school day. But gradually, stories and characters emerge, and by the end of the film you realize that Cantet has created not only a powerful drama, but has also touched on issues as fundamental as French national identity.

The Class is based on the autobiographical novel Entre les Murs by François Bégaudeau, who plays the lead in the film. The story follows a class of students in a public junior high school in the 20th arrondissement of Paris for a year, and was filmed in a real school (Françoise Dolto Junior High) with most of the cast drawn from that school’s students, teachers and parents. Many of the students are nonwhite and recent immigrants to France who must deal with issues of ethnic identity and racial discrimination along with the usual trials and tribulations of young teenagers; this gives a sharp edge to their habitual rebelliousness and resentment of authority.

The film was created in a series of workshops conducted of the course of a year. Beginning with a skeleton of a script adapted from Bégaudeau’s novel, students and teachers worked out scenes and developed characters. Although many of the fictional students are familiar types, the actors are not playing themselves, but rather using their observations of how students and teachers interact in a classroom to create characters and situations which have the feel of reality. I’m not often a fan of films or plays created through improvisation, since the result is often conventional, superficial or patently unbelievable (good writing doesn’t come easy; ask anyone who’s tried it). But The Class finds the right balance between scripting and spontaneity, and over the course of more than two hours, the story has plenty of unexpected twists and turns, most of which ring true. More importantly, it raises deeper issues all the more effectively because they are suggested by interactions among the characters rather than being imposed on the audience.

All adolescents are concerned with forming and asserting their adult identities, but the students in The Class have more to deal with than most. Although theoretically they are as French as any Caucasian whose family has lived in France for ten generations, in fact they must reconcile their birth heritage (many are from Africa, Asia or the Caribbean) with expectations that they will assimilate to a national culture which refuses to accept them as equals. The 2005 and 2007 Paris riots, motivated in large part by discrimination and police harassment, exposed this elephant in the French living room, and the resentments which fueled those riots are the back story to many situations which emerge during The Class.

Unlike many American films centered on the classroom (Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers come immediately to mind) there are no heroes in The Class, and no glorious victories. Teachers, parents and students all have an ample supply of shortcomings, and often the most well-intentioned encounters fail to produce the desired result. | Sarah Boslaugh

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