For a year in which the Academy was more than willing to throw Oscar after Oscar at any movie claiming the mantle of multiculturalism, it seems ironic that The Class, a film that genuinely examined the issue’s complexities while sidestepping easy clichés, was snubbed.
Perhaps it should have ended with a Bollywood dance number.
In The Class (a flat translation of the original title, Entre les Murs) Laurent Cantet offers a compelling portrait of a year spent between the walls of a Parisian ninth grade classroom — a hothouse of racial and ethnic tensions, loosely moderated chaos, and from time to time, the odd flash of brilliance.
While this is well-trodden territory, Cantet approaches it with honesty and candor, going so far as to cast François Bégaudeau, author of Entre les Murs, as the lead, Prof. François Marin. For the class, Cantet enlisted Bégaudeau’s former students, a group of mostly African, Chinese and European immigrants, trained them minimally and then set them off, encouraging them to adapt their roles to their own language and mannerisms.
Cinéma vérité aside, the decision to let students play themselves touches upon the film’s most powerful theme: the relationship between language and cultural identity. In a classroom defined by difference, education consists less in imparting knowledge than in establishing the basic terms of communication. During a typical class, the teacher is challenged for using French names in grammar exercises – “Why not Assata or Rachid?” – the imperfect subjunctive is dismissed as bourgeois, and when Bégaudeau protests, he’s accused of being a ‘Camemberter’ — a cheese-eating Frenchman. Rather than studying Voltaire, (“too difficult”) the majority of class time is spent trying to reconcile old French culture with new, and this is what produces the film’s most memorable moments. As Cantet remarked at the New York Film Festival’s press conference, “You can’t really expect to teach the language of Molière or Racine or Proust without listening to the students’ own language.”
With its shaky camerawork and socially charged premise, the film has the deceptive feel of a documentary, and it puts this to good use. Leaving the viewer to guess what’s scripted and what’s not, The Class blurs the line between fiction and reality, giving it a heightened sense of intimacy that ultimately strengthens its emotional impact. Because of this approach — and because of its emphasis on ambiance over plot — the only thing that truly structures the film is the classroom itself. Months pass without notice and personalities transform overnight (what, you don’t remember ninth grade?) but routines of school life never change. Day in and day out, Bégaudeau struggles to engage a classroom of unruly students (occasionally at the cost of his ethics) and to reconcile the ancien régime of French education with students unwilling to see France as their own. While often disheartening, The Class frankly reflects the realities of contemporary France, and even more admirably, it does so without succumbing to a Disneyfied vision of multiculturalism.
In its refusal to cede to easy resolutions or political correctness, The Class accomplishes what most films in its genre don’t — it raises complex topics honestly and intelligently, allowing the space of a classroom to speak volumes about the world outside its walls. Moreover, it does so with an attention to ethical difficulties involved, culminating in the decision over whether or not to expel and potentially deport a misbehaving student. Oscar or not, The Class is easily one of the smartest films of 2008, and more than deserving of the award it did earn, the Palme d’Or at Cannes.