A certain kind of popular movie translates the frontier violence of Shane into strife within an urban classroom. A charismatic outsider arrives on the scene and vanquishes the forces of disorder just in time to ride off into the sunset. Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, and To Sir, With Love offer variations on the formula of teacher as chalkboard paladin. The Class, however, portrays teaching as a daily struggle in which victory is at best provisional and uncertain. Set entirely within the walls of a public school within the 20th arrondissement, a working-class neighborhood in eastern Paris, The Class (whose original title, Entre les murs, means within the walls) could easily be mistaken for a documentary instead of what it is – a thoroughly convincing representation of one teacher’s experience during the course of an academic year. No musical soundtrack embellishes the raw truth of teacher François Marin’s encounters with young minds and mindlessness. Marin is played by François Bégaudeau, whose autobiographical novel provides the raw material from which director Laurent Cantet adapted the film. The other characters are portrayed by actual students and teachers who, without professional acting experience, turn in utterly credible performances. Their school is an unstable amalgam of inquisitiveness, resentment, yearning, and boredom.
Early in the proceedings, one of François’ colleagues bursts into the teachers’ lounge and vents his frustrations. “I’m sick of these clowns,” he declares. His students, he complains, are unresponsive cattle, and they are dragging him down. “We are not animals,” he insists. It is a rare moment of despair, but it underlines the film’s refusal to sentimentalize the task of educating a motley group of 13- and 14-year-olds. François, who is in his fourth year at the school, is remarkably patient, but he gets into trouble when, in a moment of pique, he calls two girls “skanks” – “pétasses” (bitches) in the original French. Everything in his class, even asking everyone to write his or her name on a piece of paper, has to be negotiated. Students are forever talking back, or balking at saying anything at all. François’ subject is French, but in the midst of explaining the subjunctive or scanning a line of poetry, he is likely to be interrupted with an inquiry about his sexual orientation or a girl’s proclamation that: “I’m not French.”
The class in The Class is a byproduct of France’s global ambitions. Like the multicultural mixtures in some American cities, the group that François aims to educate in the language of Jean Racine and Victor Hugo is a macédoine of languages and origins. Some are in danger of deportation. Students in The Class seem trapped in a social class with limited opportunity. The teacher tries to justify mastering the conjugation of croire to students from Mali, Morocco, Ivory Coast, and China, while mediating arguments over which football team deserves the Africa Cup and attempting to understand differing codes of shame.
The threat of violence is not nearly as palpable in François’ school as its American counterparts. But when one sullen student attacks another, he faces expulsion, a failure of François’ mission. The final words, at the end of the academic year, are spoken, plaintively, by a troubled African girl. “I don’t understand what we do,” she tells the teacher. “I didn’t learn anything.” But, au contraire, I did. •