Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Review: The Class

When I read the other morning about President Barack Obama's planned announcement on education, I realized it was as good a prompt as any to post my review of Laurent Cantet's Oscar-nominated film The Class (Entre les murs [literally 'Between the walls']), which despite its French setting explores some of the issues central to contemporary discussions on US public education. Cantet has based his film on a highly praised novel by former teacher, soccer journalist and singer François Bégaudeau, with whom he co-wrote the script, and the film has the feel of documentary truth; in fact, in its adroit use of non-actors, primarily the schoolchildren who populate the film's classes and playgrounds but also some of the teaching staff, and its somewhat grainy, handheld digital high-definition images, it impressively straddles the feature/documentary line. 38 year old writer Bégaudeau also stars in the film as a fictional version of himself: François Marin, a French teacher leading a diverse, packed French class of 14 and 15 year olds. As the French title literally and figuratively suggests, The Class tracks events between the school's walls, and more specifically, in Marin's class and the teacher lounge, over the course of a school year. In fact, except for the opening scene, the film never leaves the school building or grounds. The effect at times is claustrophobic, particularly in the classroom scenes, where the students appear to be stacked on top of each other in their tiny desks, or when they gather for recess on the outdoor asphalt lot which is smaller than a soccer field. Another way to read the title might through the trope of the domestic; the film repeatedly shows both the physical and emotional connections and distances between the faculty and students, putting the viewer in mind of a large, contentious, dysfunctional family, in which communication and understanding occur in alternating measures. Communication and misunderstanding across the figurative family of the school and within a specific family, as it turns out, are central elements of the film's plot.

The Class opens with teacher Marin polishing off a coffee at a tabac across the street from the school and then heading to a first-day meeting of the teaching staff. Old and new teachers introduce themselves, with the veteran staff, which includes Marin, urging the new staff the best. What we see is a mostly middle-class white teaching staff, with a few people of color scattered among them, a narrative fact that will prove key to the film's central theme and plot hinge of miscommunication and disrespect. Then we're in Marin's in the classroom, and the students pour in. They could easily be sitting in a New York public school classroom, though the racial and ethnic mix is specifically metropolitan French: there are Maghrebians, West Africans, Turks, several East Asian students, along with a smattering of white French middle and working-class students. Marin's primary antagonists turn out to be two girls, Esméralda (Esméralda Ouertani) and Khoumba (Rachel Régulier), the second of whom he's taught before, but who has now become intractable. Both girls use his grammar lessons as a scene to hash out personal and larger political issues. For Esméralda, the issue is belonging, or not belonging, in France, and her awareness of her position, expressed in constant challenges to Marin, gathers force throughout the film. For Khoumba, the issues are more diffuse and inexpressible, and Marin cannot grasp or tolerate them. But there are other antagonists, particularly the young men, whose degrees of participation, embodied by the bright and talkative Boubacar (Boubacar Touré) and non-participation, which is most of the boys, bedevil Marin. Among the most problematic is a popular Malian-French student, Souleymane (Franck Keïta), who rarely speaks and just as infrequently completes or turns in his work. The film shows Marin trying to connect with him, even after Souleymane, in a striking moment, tries to clock Marin by asking if he's "gay," but Cantet shows that Marin's view of and approach to dealing with Souleymane, while full of empathy, will not be reduced to this. Amidst all of the problem children, there are a few ideal students, including Marin's favorite, a Chinese immigrant named Wei (Wei Wang), on whom he and the rest of the faculty can heap no few praises. But Wei'spersonal life, like those of all the other students mirrors the various social crises and fractures affecting contemporary France; his father, in France illegally, is sent back to China, and there's great concern about how this will effect the son and the rest of the family.

The French class setting is a brilliant touch, since language is the material and discursive embodiment of any country's history, its society, its culture, its ideals, and its identity. In terms of France, the language also indexes the country's incapacity, at various levels, to fully acknowledge sociopolitical, economic and cultural differences and counternarratives to its sense of itself as a beacon of liberty, equality, and brotherhood. As I watched the struggles in the class, through the language itself, play out, I thought about debates in the US over Ebonics, English-as-a-Second-Language, and testing standards, while also considering the flexibility and pragmatic aspects of English itself. At various points in The Class, we see Marin's or students' questions or arguments over language, such as the use of the highly formal and rarely used French past subjunctive, which Khoumba knows and deploys correctly, to Marin's surprise and disbelief, then disdain, expand into serious arguments over class, race and ethnicity, citizenship and Frenchness. The more casual and colloquial language the students deploy, the language of metropolitan France, butts heads with the textbook French that Morin is trying to teach, that he wields at times, as a vehicle not only of learning, but also of condescension and superiority. For nearly all the students, including the white French students, there appears to be no easy identification with the language of Pierre Corneille and François Molière, André Malraux and Simone de Beauvoir, or the vast array of attitudes, the vast culture, these figures represent: they define themselves and their ideas against this France discursive, by other means and modes, such as religious affiliation, national belonging, racial categorization, or identity categories such as Goth culture. And in the classroom and outside, these forms of identity and identification keep clashing; during a series of in-class talks, students quarrel over the teams in the African Cup of Nations, dividing along national lines (Morocco/Arabs/winners vs. Mali/Black Africans/losers vs. Ivory Coast, whose teams have done well in international competition), which leads to a near fistfight between Malian champion Souleymane and a newcomer, Carl (Carl Nanor), a young Afro-Caribbean student who has been ejected from another school, and who identifies with...France. For Souleymane, the epithet "brother" goes no further than Mali touches Guadeloupe; blackness here fractures like French society itself.

It's appropriate to call The Class a tragedy with a small "t," as the unrelieved conflicts build to a sad but foreshadowed end. At the same time, tragedies of this sort, I imagine, occur all over France and, as we know, all over the United States, the larger tragedy being a national one, as generations of students remain undereducated, their psychological, emotional, economic, and cultural needs unmet, and the country, our country and the world, are the worse for it. In this film's case the triggers are language, naturally enough, and the concept of respect. At a teacher's meeting, the faculty debate the progress of students, and, in a truly French touch, student representatives must be present. In this instance, Marin's antagonist Esméralda happens to be one of them, and displays her utter respect for the teachers through giggling, joking, misremembering comments that will prove explosive when she recounts them later in Marin's class. The next day, Marin, in a bit of pique, tosses off an insult at Esméralda and her fellow conspirator, basically calling them sluts, and this leads to a violent outburst and confrontation with Souleymane, who is determined to preserve their honor. The altercation provokes a trial, but again Cantet mixes things up by having Marin as the chief defender of Souleymane, who, we learn, is in danger of being sent back to Mali by his father if he is thrown out of school. I won't give away the ending, but there are no comic turns here, no deus ex machina, no easy or slick redemptive turns. Marin takes his knocks, as does Souleymane, and the liberal attitudes the teachers may individually hold are no match either for the parents' representatives, the students' proxies or what amounts to the rule of law. When the film ends, as the academic calendar itself reaches its end, the school, Marin fields responses from the class on what they got out of his class, and the responses vary, but one young woman, who has barely uttered a word, her eyes wide with something verging on despair, expresses an anxiety that is redolent of many classrooms across France, the US and elsewhere: she has not learned anything, she says. Nothing. It was all beyond her. And we gather that she'll pass, move up a grade, and then what? Marin has no answers, as film offers none, instead uniting everyone on screen, as a family, even if the various dramas and traumas have not fully healed and what passes for the respect that the faculty and students have reestablished is as a fragile as a very thin pane of glass.

The acting throughout is unmannered and effortless, grounding the film in a realist mode. Bégaudeau inhabits Marin completely, demonstrating more than once that he is neither an angel nor a monster, but utterly human. Nearly as good are Jean-Michel Simonet as the principal, many of the teachers, and Fatoumata Kanté as Souleymane's mother. The performances by the student actors, however, are what set this film apart. All of them are excellent, but particularly noteworthy are Ouertani, Régulier, Keïta, Touré, and Nanor. Keïta is like a silently smoldering volcano, all charm and youthful cool covering a rage that could split an opponent in two, while Nanor smolder like an ember from the moment he hits the screen, his lips pouty and unibrow furrowing, as if it is taking every fibre in him not to punch anyone who crosses him out cold. Ouertani, however, is the revelation. Smart-mouthed, with a breathy voice and a cutting wit, the young actress plays her character as the kind of student many a junior and senior high school teacher may secretly fear, someone whose sense of outrage and justice fuels a contempt that matches a brilliance the teacher hardly expects or wants to deal with ever. All contribute to making the movie one of the best and truest to life I've seen about contemporary public school education. I now wish that an American filmmaker would attempt something along these lines, instead of the endless, soupy features and comedies about the education of the suburban rich and upper-middle-class, or the urban school redemption stories, which are more about the (usually white) teachers and less about the (usually not white) students, that flood our screens. There is a rich and worthy vein of narratives across this country, just awaiting a writer and a director talented enough to tell them.

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