FICTION AS DOCUMENTARY
published December 19,
Entre Les Murs (English title: The Class)
playing for one week in
New York and Los Angeles for Academy Award qualification; opens regular limited engagement beginning January 30
If you’re Christmas shopping for your
favorite film critic, give him three good films from a single country and let him declare a “New Wave.”
There is nothing a film critic more likes
to do. Yet the recent proliferation of supposed New Waves obscures one fact – the majority of classic films have come from two nations, the
United States of America and France.
While Italy and England and Japan pitch in,
these two nations consistently produce the greatest share of excellence. They also seem to trade decades. When Hollywood was down in the early
1960s, the French New Wave filled the gap. The American indie shaped the nineties, a down period for French film.
In most eyes, that down period has ended,
and French film is once again peaking. The French resurgence was consecrated this year by the selection of the classroom drama Entre Les Murs as the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes. Root, root, root for the home team – it was the first
French victory in more than 20 years. In film years, that seems almost as long as the French army’s last victory. Under Joan of
Portraying a year in the life of a middle
school in a tough Parisian immigrant neighborhood, Laurent Cantet’s feature isn’t a documentary. But it looks like one. And it feels like one.
The students are real students, chosen from volunteers at a real Parisian school. The teacher Francois Marin is played by Francois Begaudeau,
a longtime educator who wrote the screenplay and the memoir on which it is based. The Socratian teaching methods that he demonstrates are the
same that he used as a teacher. The situations often are based on real events. This is perhaps as close as one can come to real life and
remain technically fictional. For verisimilitude junkies, it’s hard to get a more powerful hit.
Entre Les Murs literally means “Between the
Walls” (although in English countries, it is going by the title The Class). We join Francois
briefly at a coffee shop on the first day of school. Thirty seconds later, he and we enter the school doors. The camera never leaves. All
drama is generated within the school grounds by its residents, and the resolutions take place there, as well.
We’re conditioned to the Stand and Deliver tropes of the high school film. This one only occasionally succumbs to those rules. It
finds drama in what one might think are mundane details of school life – staff meetings, parent conferences, philosophical disagreements. Most
of all, the drama comes from the interaction in the classroom, from the give and take between the teacher and 20 curious minds. Only towards
the end does the film take on a traditional schoolhouse dramatic conflict, the disciplining of the school’s biggest miscreant. Yet the final
showdown erupts not from drugs or guns or gangs, but from an overreaction to a teacher’s moment of weakness. Even the deserved discipline
presents unexpected moral questions for the teaching staff.
With its methodical commitment to getting
things right, the film captures the routine joys and frustrations of teaching. It presents both the classroom and the emerging multicultural
French society as organic entities. It gives us the most realistic, least sentimental sense of the true profession that we’re likely to find
kevinbowen @ stageandcinema.com