High school teachers may have the world’s most challenging job. They hold a position of authority and try to retain that authority every day while facing a hundred young people whose job is to challenge authority. It’s a shaky tightrope where one right gesture can earn a teacher a tiny bit of respect. One wrong word can send him plummeting.
This treacherous teacher/student dynamic is the subject of the French movie “Entre les Murs” (“The Class”). It stars François Bégaudeau as François Marin, a real teacher loosely telling his own true story set in a rough Paris high school. The movie is based on Bégaudeau’s autobiographical novel.
The movie consists of classroom scenes between teacher and students with Marin trying to teach – and to keep his feet. His students, especially four or five, study his every move, waiting for him to let his guard down, like young challengers waiting to take down the champ. The movie is structured like rounds of a match alternating with respites into the safe corner of the teacher’s lounge.
Every student is portrayed with a naturalness that lends the movie a documentary-like feel. It is among the most realistic movies about the high school experience I’ve ever seen. Not only do the students interact with their teacher, they also interact with each other in ways too many to catch in a single viewing. Imagine thirty students interacting in 900 (30 squared) ways. The effect is of a real classroom – and we’re flies on the wall.
Bégaudeau is fantastic in a role that he was truly born to play. How often does someone portray a character based on his own life? You can see moments of genuine pain – and occasional joy – as he recreates past moments as thinly veiled fiction. But it isn’t his character that most occupied my memories after I ejected the DVD.
“The Class” is filled with a rich variety of characters, every one distinct and interesting. But they aren’t the stereotypical characters usually found in teen movies. This is far removed from John Hughes territory with “the Jock,” “the Geek,” “the Oddball,” and “the Popular Girl.” The students here are uniquely flesh and blood, impossible to pigeonhole.
Most memorable is Esmeralda played by Esmeralda Ouetani (all of the students are played by “actors” with the same names, playing variations on themselves). Sitting mid-class halfway between the more wide-eyed students in the front rows and those who just want to be left alone in the back rows, she is the orchestrator of conflict.
She has an unforgettable face, once again far removed from the type of face found in Hollywood teen movies. It’s a real face. And her sharp, biting tongue is never at a loss for words. The fight the movie becomes is truly a battle of wits between her and Marin with the other students either in her corner or leaning in against the ropes. And waiting to see who will be victorious is the source of the drama.
“The Class” is a very impressive piece of work. Officiating over such a complexly improvised depiction of a pressure-cooker classroom was a directorial feat by Laurent Cantet richly deserving of its many awards. Among them, it was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (2009) and was awarded the Golden Palm (Grand Prize) at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.
“The Class” is rated PG-13 for language.
The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, April 22 at 3:00 and 5:30 as the final film of this Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.