The new French movie The Class blurs the line between documentary and fictional film, but doesn’t entirely erase it. It feels real and immediate, but with an underlying structure that remains loose and free-from, making the developing story feel like something discovered during the filmmaking process.
The movie’s original French title is Entre les murs (Between the Walls), from the novel on which the screenplay by Robin Campillo and director Laurent Cantet is based. The book’s author, François Bégaudeau (who also worked on the script), wrote the book as a day-by-day chronicle of one year teaching French in a racially mixed Paris junior high school.
In the movie, Bégaudeau plays a version of himself named François Marin. Adding to the semi-documentary blur is the fact that most of the students are played by nonprofessional teenagers using their real-life first names for their characters. They’re nonprofessionals but natural actors, as is Bégaudeau himself; all of them work with smooth conviction within the improvisational framework Cantet and Campillo provide for them.
The framework, thanks to that documentary aura, takes a while to emerge from the barely controlled chaos that we see in Marin’s classroom. We meet Souleymane (Franck Keïta), a sullen hothead who resists classroom exercises but shows an unexpected talent for photography, which the teacher encourages him to submit to fulfill an assignment to write a prose “self-portrait”; Khoumba (Rachel Régulier), sensitive and intelligent but resentful that Marin seems out to “get” her; Wei (Wei Huang), a Chinese immigrant insecure about his command of French but surprisingly eloquent for all that; and Esméralda (Esméralda Ouertani), who expresses her own intelligence and sharp wit with a sassiness that borders on open insolence, but always with a mischievous grin.
Characters emerge, too, among the teachers, especially during staff meetings, where the faculty spends as much time discussing the teachers’ coffee machine as they do a proposed merit-and-demerit system for the students. These people contend constantly with the nuts and bolts—and frustrations—of trying to get through to students who often resist learning almost as a means of asserting their own identities. How can they nurture that assertiveness without letting it fester into self-destructiveness? It’s a real and ongoing question; all in all, it’s hard to fault them for wanting to ensure a reliable supply of cheap coffee.
Director Cantet takes his original title literally—the movie seldom strays outside the walls of one classroom, and never outside the walls of the school itself. We see the life that goes on in the school, and the life outside only when it impinges on the school, when parents or relatives come in for teacher conferences or disciplinary hearings.
There’s a lot of talk in The Class, and it’s not always well served by the English subtitles, which are often stilted and awkward in a way that seems at odds with the natural flow of what we hear and see on the screen. Subtitles are always an uneasy compromise, of course, but some pretty talky French films have benefited from excellent subtitles (see almost any Eric Rohmer film). The fact that much of Marin’s classroom time is devoted to hammering out the subtleties of French grammar doesn’t help (though it paradoxically helps us identify with the students—his stuff is just as frustrating to us as it is to them).
But that’s a quibble; the cumbersome subtitles hamper but do not block the vitality that seethes throughout this low-key yet vibrant film. The final scene, in which Marin asks his students one by one what they learned this year, brings the movie’s subtle structure at last into sharp focus. The students seem almost to resist the idea that they learned anything, but it comes out in funny ways. One girl mentions something from outside the classroom—Plato’s Republic, a book she borrowed from her older sister—and follows it with a succinct appraisal of the Socratic method that Marin himself has employed all year. Another girl stays after class to confide that she didn’t learn anything, but Marin tells her to wait and see, suspecting that she may have learned something after all, more than she knows.