Opening night: between the walls of The Class

François Bégaudeau stars in <i>The Class</i>

This year’s opening night selection of the New York Film Festival comes as the Palm d’Or winner at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Laurent Cantet’s classroom-genre meditation The Class [or, as titled in France, Entre les murs, meaning literally “between the walls”].  The movie is carried, not just in story but also in gravitas, by François Bégaudeau; as Mr. Marin, middle school French teacher, Bégaudeau, lends his real-life experiences at the helm of a young adult classroom, and in essence plays a version of himself.  Bégaudeau, an author and literary critic, adapted his novel for the screen and skillfully captures the dynamic of chaotic harmony of early adolescence in the classroom.

This film is deceptive in the way it introduces the viewer into the whirlwind of middle school, and in the case of The Class, a multi-ethnic inner-city middle school, and Cantet makes careful choices as to what the viewer is granted access.  Following the course of a single school year, no stone is left unturned; from the thin-membraned solace of the teacher’s breakroom to the staff council meetings to the parent-teacher conferences to the revelations of the family dynamics of the students themselves, this inner-city middle school comes alive with what seems to be a magical minimum of effort.

That said, Cantet’s choices could not have been so easy.  Even with a class of twenty students, the viewer never feels alienated or out of reach of the lives and complications of the students as well.  The students are presented through the lens of Mr. Marin, who after only four years of teaching at this school seems to have a grip on the tribulations ahead.  His class is by no means saintly, and the students have no qualms with discord or discontent.  At times combative, vulnerable, defiant, and uncertain, the students of Mr. Marin’s classroom (the actors all of junior-high age, no artifice of a primped and camera-ready face among them) bring both mesmeric honesty and perhaps unsettling reminders of the middle school through which everyone must pass.

Bégaudeau is wise to imbue Marin with the frustrations and pratfalls of any other teacher in his situation; Marin is young and clean-cut, equal parts confident and imperfect, and not afraid of a fight.  He understands the limitations of what a teacher can and should do, from learning of the deportation of a student’s mother to the possibility of another student’s expulsion resulting in being sent back to his family’s poverty in Mali, Marin keeps to his directive as teacher and does not, cannot, interfere.  Marin does his best to avoid the slings and arrows of his class’s occasional disrespect, but in turn is caught off guard when his frustrations mount in the face of the Möbius strip illogic of two of his cattiest students.

This film takes place entirely between the walls of this school, and although the city does not encroach on this atmosphere, its effects certainly color the lives of every student and thereby eliminates a possible sense of seclusion.  Ultimately, at the hands of Cantet and Bégaudeau, The Class is more so a vivid and compassionate a tale of classroom life than any other you’re likely to see.

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