Laurent Cantet's Palme d'Or-winning Entre les murs, or The Class, strives to be a vérité documentarian portrait of the choppy few ups and many downs of a school year for a French high school that hosts as its student body a largely immigrant population. The Class thankfully lacks the platitudinous chicanery of many a film to essay a teacher-classroom dichotomy-turned-symbiosis, resorting not to maudlin sentiment but rather a mostly absorbing day-to-day grind of a young teacher attempting to educate the unruly and rebellious students. The end result is a film that is, at once, both perfectly even in its tone and refusal to ever once be ludic or affected and quite uneven in its asperous machinations not of plot but of its multi-character study. Fortunately, the picture avails itself to give voice to both the avatar of authority and those whose resentment may slowly thaw into something more benign.
Arguably at the film's thematic heart is the Stoic Epictetus's famed comment, “Only the educated are free.” Today Epictetus may be viewed with an accommodating distance and suspicion—he did, after all, contend that a man should mourn a stranger's wife's death with the passion and angst with which he would be racked in the event of his own. Stoic extremism does test one's patience. Nevertheless, his averment on behalf of the import of education does bring The Class into a brighter context. It may be said that the film pivots around the best and worst aspects of Epictetus's numerous insights—for if the French teacher Francois Begaudeau were to view his students as mere vessels of logical, rational growth, would he care so dearly about their respective futures in French society?
The Class is fundamentally a modified documentary featuring a cast of students and the author of the book on which the film's screenplay (also co-written by him, along with Robin Campillo and director Laurent Cantet). Often penetrating, and always cognitively entertaining, one of the finest aspects of The Class is the remarkably organic way in which classroom discussions break out, diverting and darting about in myriad directions—with frequently unfortunate results. Begaudeau has nearly ceaseless difficulty in maintaining comprehensive order, without which the classroom quickly disintegrates into open hostilities between students, and all too often finds itself manifested in insolence and disrespect toward him. The mainly immigrant student population is comprised of a vividly drawn disparate group of individuals, such as Souleymane, a confrontational Malian Muslim, a black girl named Khoumba whose relationship with Begaudeau is quite rocky, Esmeralda, a loud and disruptive girl who enjoys teasing her teacher, Wei, a bright Chinese immigrant who wonders whether many of his peers understand the concept of shame and Carl, a Caribbean who joins the class later in the year after having been expelled from other schools.
The subtlest and most sublime moment of the film is one in which the class is reading aloud from Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. Khoumba has become increasingly unruly and abrasive in her demeanor and language with Begaudeau. When he calls on Khoumba to read from the book, she refuses, making Begaudeau angry and disappointed with her. Telling her to meet him after class, and allowing another student to read in her stead, the verbalized text from Frank's diary underlines what Khoumba is going through herself, as a girl who is seen in ways that obscure the truer image of her. It is an exceptionally rendered scene, punctuated by the after-class encounter in which Khoumba apologizes to Begaudeau only to leave, telling him as she departs that she did not mean it. Begaudeau's irritation and genuine distress are palpable.
The Class's “plot,” as such, is made up of various strands that are pushed along by individual students. Souleymane is considered a poor student by all of his teachers, but Begaudeau speaks up for him, noting that despite his academic deficiencies, he occasionally demonstrates a willingness to engage, and to be engaged. The film's most tender scene is of Begaudeau encouraging Souleymane in the posting of personal photographs of himself and his loved ones, culminating with the teacher telling the other students to take a look at Souleymane's work. Ironically, the film's most intense twist occurs when the two “class reps,” Esmeralda and a pretty French girl named Louise—whose job is to represent the class at faculty meetings—inform the other students what the teachers have said about their academic performances. At the meeting Begaudeau once again defended Souleymane, while admitting that he is “academically limited.” Esmeralda and Louise tell Souleymane about Begaudeau's most disparaging remark, precipitating a moment of havoc from which the final act of the film reels.
In this fraught environment of sociological and cultural conflict, the actions of Esmeralda and Louise seem to suggest that the very idealism and warmth with which Begaudeau views the students—always attempting to see the best in them and defending them to his colleagues—is perhaps misplaced. His efforts to treat the students almost as peers repeatedly appear to backfire, and it may be said that the very concept of “class reps,” for instance, is rebutted as almost senseless by Cantet's film. These, and other matters, are not offered definitive editorializing by the filmmakers, but in this case the film's thematic stimulation gives reason to make plausible assumptions about from which perspective the film is viewing such fixtures of modern schooling. Esmeralda and Louise's behavior impels Begaudeau to momentarily lose his patience and temper, which results in disaster.
The Class has been viewed as an important film; a keenly artful sociopolitical and sociocultural examination of modern French society and its apparent problems. Multiculturalism in France has achieved certain historical laudatory results, but for many of the students of today who do not view themselves as French and contend that the entire educational system is not far removed from the French imperialism of, say, West Africa, in which white Frenchmen were tasked with instructing Africans with the desire of making them into Frenchmen themselves, problems persist. In a way, The Class recalls the 2002 documentary Entre et Avoir in its chronicling of an entire academic school year, but at its absolute darkest there are hints of Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine (1995), which explored the most frightening realities of modern urban French society. Animosity between a social order controlled by liberal French bureaucrats who insist their good intentions can erase matters of tribalism and ethnic and religious conflict and the immigrant population that seethes under what they interpret as cultural aggression has exploded, most notably around the issues of economic opportunity in France's class-based social scheme. At the film's sad end, a girl walks up to Begaudeau and tells him she did not learn anything all year. She hopes she does not have to be absorbed into the systematic directing of students into vocational training. The desperation she feels is but one of many microcosms the film looks at, and ultimately, its most important.