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Entre les Murs, “between the walls,” is this gripping French film’s title, describing how we will spend the two hours: on the campus of a Paris junior high school. Here in the US, the film was released with the title The Class, which points more directly at what we see from within these walls: the daily playing out of class, racial, and sexual tensions against the complex backdrop of a city with lots of immigrants and a tricky colonial history, the French educational system (and all the bureaucracy that implies), not to mention the hormonal and social fluctuations of the individuals involved.

At first glance we wonder if we’re in for another inspirational school story in the mold of Stand and Deliver. Mr. Marin, the junior-high teacher, appears to be the somewhat misunderstood language arts teacher in a junior high school where most of the teachers are in the process of giving up on teaching. The kids, a mix of French and immigrant kids, hail from enough different socioeconomic backgrounds to provoke some serious outbursts in and out of the classroom.

Role Model or Object Lesson?

Bégaudeau plays himself in a film based on his autobiography
Bégaudeau plays himself in a film based on his autobiography

Initially, instructor Marin seems to be cooler than the others, or to understand the kids better than his colleagues do. But as he plies his ideas about proper speech to his captive yet extremely skeptical audience, we see how the kids ignore his authority, pick on each other mercilessly, and mock their instructor for his ideas about proper speech. “No one talks that way,” the kids insist, deriding his hopelessly archaic ideas about linguistic correctness and raising the question of whether these kids could possibly agree on a single definition of correctness in the first place. They even question Marin’s sexual orientation.

When Marin, in a moment of pique, calls a couple of the girls in his class “skanks,” we see another reality that has nothing to do with inspiring idealism in impressionable youngsters and everything to do with race, sexual politics, and bureaucratic infighting.

As we get to know this roomful of students, played by real French schoolkids, and their teacher, played by Francois Begaudeau, the teacher who wrote the autobiography from which the film was adapted, we find a few stereotypes — the goth, the ambitious Asian. Yet the cast, perhaps because they spent an entire academic year on this production, has the feel of a true collection of natives and immigrants, with authentic attitudes and defenses. We feel we are witnessing things that only a school’s security camera might normally capture: moments of brutal honesty, shocking violence, and true vulnerability.

More Realistic than Reality TV

When I first watched The Class, I was flabbergasted to learn it was fiction. The filmmakers call it a “docudrama,” as it is based on the teacher’s true story. With the dispassionate yet focused attention of a documentarian like Frederick Wiseman, director Laurent Cantet deployed three HD video cameras to capture the teacher, the student(s) in the scene, and some of the spontaneous interactions and gestures that render this film so realistic. Some of the scenes were developed from the book while other threads emerged during the production.

The persistent willingness of the kids to reach across each other’s and their teacher’s boundaries in The Class makes one wonder why there’s a separate category for “foreign-language” films at the Oscars. This is great acting. Not only can you tell exactly what’s being said at any moment, whatever language you speak, you can hardly believe someone is saying it out loud.