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Entre les murs (The Class)

Laurent Cantet's Entre les murs has been given the English title, "The Class," but "Intramural" would have served much better. Aside from two shots at the very beginning — shots of François Marin (François Bégaudeau) finishing a cup of coffee and heading down an indistinct sidewalk, where he meets colleagues — the entirety of the film is shot within the walls of a public school in Paris. In the 20th Arrondissement, to be precise. It has always seemed to me that the 20th is a banlieue with the good fortune to find itself within the Boulevard Périphérique that girdles the French capital no less symbolically than the fortified walls that were torn down to clear the roadway. Whether the school building that serves as a set for Entre les murs is itself within the 20th, I can't say, but its air of being clean and in good repair suggests that no matter how ill-behaved the students might be, they will not be allowed to drag the facilities into a vicious feedback loop of demoralizing neglect. It also suggests, somewhat more quietly, that the students themselves will not be neglected. If Entre les murs has a theme, it is the vexatious difficulty of protecting adolescents who are quite sure (quite mistakenly) that they don't want to be protected.

Teenagers are unfortunate children who wake up to find themselves encased in strong, impulsive bodies with a will of their own. Their self-understanding is staggeringly poor. It is heartstoppingly clear to everyone around them that they're at the most dangerous time in life, when a sudden, ill-considered move can be fatal, or at least self-destructive. Rarely has the pitiable state of adolescence been more beautifully brought to the screen than it is by Franck Keïta, the young man who plays Souleymane, a colt of a boy of Malian background who is one of François Marin's students. Souleymane's body is making a fool of him. Almost a man's, it obviously challenges him to adopt manly ways that he is not in the least prepared to shoulder. It warns him of the dishonor inherent in allowing another man to get too close, to tell him what to do, or to disrespect him in any way. He does not understand disrespect at all. Unfortunate enough to come of age in at a moment when popular culture pretends to admire thuggish swagger, Souleymane has only a cartoonish, video-game idea of what disrespect looks like. M Marin's attempt to save Souleymane not so much from himself but from the tinsel of tribal masculinity is just about the saddest thing that I've seen in the movies in a long time. Unlike the other sad things that I've seen in recent months, it followed me out of the theatre and is still with me days later. Entre les murs does not propose a solution to one of the most perennial problems in education. The movie simply presents it more clearly than it has even been shown before, and no less lyrically.

With a class of twenty-odd students on his hands, M Marin has other things to think about beside Souleymane, and Entre les murs manages to run through them without making him look superhuman. Most viewers will probably conclude that he is a "good-enough" teacher — high praise in an age that has little inclination to pay the bill for expensive perfectionism. Astonishingly, M Bégaudeau not only wrote the book on which the movie is based but is (or was) a schoolteacher himself, so that the gist of Entre les murs oscillates between an amazingly public audition and a boldly projected model. So bold, in fact, that we're allowed to witness the harrowing spectacle of the teacher's breach of his own professional standards. In a heated moment, Marin loses his cool — the very thing that high-school teachers especially cannot afford to do — and insults two students. American audiences will understandably worry that the last part of the film will be given over to Marin's fight to keep his job, but the fact that his intemperance doesn't end his career doesn't lift so much as a straw from Marin's conscience. With the terrible economy that we expect of tragedy, Marin's outburst sets off the chain reaction that, scudding through the small classroom, leads to Souleymane's crisis and downfall.

Film students, I expect, will be dissecting Entre les murs for years to come, and for the most elementary reason: to explain the magic with which Mr Cantet and his colleagues have turned out a film of almost unbearable intimacy. Is there some trick to the camera work, or to the editing? Or does the filmmaker exploit the fact that, while few people actually experience highly dramatic love affairs, and fewer still find themselves mired in murder investigations, almost everyone who goes to the movies will have languished through years of classroom ennui? (If the coursework itself is not boring, then the other students are sure to be.) A feature film confined to the vernacular blandness of a public school and to the professional problems of teachers — the moments of "off-duty" interaction in the commons room never go so far from the students as to explore collegial friendships — sounds almost as boring as high school itself. Except that, when it is not boring, high school tends to be very exciting. Mr Cantet shows us only so much of the boring side of school to emphasize the other.

Intended to wear the air of a documentary, Entre les murs exchanges the rivetingly concentrated performances of an ordinary good movie for the ambiguous encounters of characters who are not on the same page dramatically — quite often because there's a language barrier between French teachers and immigrant parents. Administrative meetings are edgy to watch precisely because we have no idea what's going to happen, or if anything is going to happen. Many viewers, especially older folks of a conservative bent, will be appalled by the students' outspokenness, but the film clearly shares the educators' faith that engaged students learn more — notwithstanding their determination not to learn anything. Even the smartest girl in the class, Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani), cannot conceal her contempt for the proceedings — everything that she knows, she learned somewhere else. The genius of Entre les murs is that it harnesses Esmeralda's uncivil detachment from the "learning process" in the service of an arresting attachment to the drama in François Marin's classroom.

To mention any more members of the cast of Entre les murs is to oblige oneself to mention them all, so I hope that I'll be forgiven for ending with one further mention: Jean-Michel Simonet is quietly astounding as the school's principal. Everything from his appearance to his institutional role sets him up to be an unsympathetic character, a more or less heartless bureaucrat. What's remarkable about Mr Simonet's performance is that his unfailing professionalism is unfailingly humane, inflected at every turn with the energetic pursuit of the best possible outcome. There is something angelic about the performance. (March 2009)

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