The Class (2008)

Dir. Laurent Cantet. Starring Francois Begaudeau, Franck Keita, Rachel Regulier

The title of The Classen francais, is Entre les murs. “Between the Walls” is a much better title for this film than “The Class.” What goes on between the walls of a classroom is not precisely secret, but it is meant to be self-contained. When Khoumba (Regulier) gets a bloody nose from Souleymane’s (Keita) violently swinging backpack, you just know that what happens between the walls will emerge somewhere else, like a nurse’s office or a conference room. Ask any teacher, and they’ll tell you: what happens between the walls, to some extent, is meant to stay there. Teachers tend to be jealous of their classrooms. They don’t like sharing them, they don’t like feeling watched. Children, and the influence they have on children, make teachers protective; how many parents want someone over their shoulder, telling them how to raise their children?

Francois Marin (Begaudeau) teaches language arts in an inner-city school to kids between 14 and 15.  His course is a mixture of Anne Frank and prescriptive grammar and written self-portraits, and only little pieces of that appeal to his students, who challenge him frequently. Marin is not a bad teacher; in some moments he is actually very good at his job. (One is reminded at the end of the film, which wraps up at the end of the school year, that we see relatively few school days; the ones we happen across are just dramatic.) He does some things that you can only get away with an inner-city school, and he says some things that an adult probably ought to leave out when dealing with kids, but on the whole we’re talking about a man with his heart in the right place and his pedagogy at least in the same neighborhood as his heart.

The Class lives up to its French title. The classroom that Francois teaches in is cramped, absolutely full to the brim with children and desks and backpacks. And while the focus of the story is what happens between the walls, the children all come from somewhere else. Few of his students are white, and none of the interesting ones are. His most interesting students have parents from North Africa and West Africa; he has a couple of Chinese students who influence the plot of the film disproportionately to their screen time. The threat of deportation hovers over some of them; one boy is threatened by his parents to be sent back to Mali if he continues to do badly, while another student’s mother is sent back to China. Their teachers are overwhelmingly white and native French. There are no old teachers, incidentally. Many of the teachers look to be in their thirties, and some a touch younger than that. In an American school with similar demographics, the average teacher age would probably not be nearly so august and mature as it is in this Parisian school.

One of the finest scenes in the film comes early on, while Francois is doing a fairly standard vocabulary exercise. Using a text that his kids are already reading, he’s asking for unfamiliar words and turning them into an impromptu vocabulary list. It’s a good practice, if a touch scattershot. As he goes through them, we learn just how intemperate these close quarters can be. I wish I could tell you if the scene is shocking or surprising; honestly, Francois’ class in scenes like this one are as true to life as any that I’ve ever seen put on film.

It begins innocently enough; the first word on the board is “Austrian,” a word which is new to Wey, a Chinese student who is still learning French and probably is not really up on his European geography. Another student criticizes him; Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani) tells the class at large that everyone knows what that means. Francois defends the word (and by extension, Wey, who has just been called out in front of thirty other kids). Esmeralda presses. Francois snaps at her. “You didn’t know ‘misleading,’ so you’re not really in any position to talk about all that.” It’s one of those things that Francois can’t seem to stop himself from saying. He’s casual; he’s casually dressed, and his attitude is fairly calm most of the time (even to the extent that his students are openly profane around him), but he cannot stop himself from impaling his teen students on sticks with comments like that. Many teachers have sharp tongues; many teachers should have better control than that.

In some other film that would be the scene. This is a (lightly fictionalized) classroom; it goes on, the way that activity in a classroom is never done until no one’s there anymore. Francois continues to deprecate Austria (which builds up Wey) and then calls out Souleymane for not taking notes like the other students. Souleymane tells Francois he has no supplies; Francois calls for someone to lend him supplies; Souleymane says he’ll do it at home. “You’ll do it at home,” Francois says, sarcastically. “Sure you will. That’s your approach.” Souleymane insists in that way that schoolchildren lie, and Francois goes back to the board having decided that this is not a fight that can be won in less than ten seconds in front of the class. He moves on to another word. He puts “succulent” into a sentence about a guy named Bill, who enjoys “succulent cheeseburgers.” One kid from the back of the room denounces cheeseburgers. Another kid retorts. Francois alters the example in mid-stride, using Cherif’s opinion to explain how Cherif thinks cheeseburgers aren’t succulent. It’s another teaching moment, one of those places where Francois could have said something like, “It’s an example, who cares what food it is?” but instead decides to run with the kid who’s spouting into the void.

Francois’ mistake, in this instance, was to use an idiom for “get the hint,” which confuses more kids; he repeats the question about what “succulent” means in context. Then another student, Khoumba, pops in. “What’s with the Bills?” she asks. Francois, in her opinion, uses “honky names” rather than names she can identify with, like “Mamadou” or “Aissata.” Esmeralda, back for more, assents. Francois, running out of patience, says that if his example sentences have to match every kid’s cultural background he won’t have time to do anything else. (If Francois were a little more sensitive, or had done a little more research, he would know that examples which reflect students’ backgrounds are not just PC but genuinely helpful.)

It’s one scene. It’s exhausting, and for any teacher who’s stood in a classroom for more than five minutes, it’s totally recognizable. Francois, ostensibly teaching a lesson about vocabulary, has to defend one student from another, tries to get another one to go to work and loses a small power struggle, defuses conflict with humor, and fends off comments about his teaching style. Francois is right maybe two-thirds of the time. He would have it easier, probably, if he could stop himself from roasting his students, but at the same time it seems to convince some of them that he has a pulse; doubtless it keeps him a little sane, keeps him from bubbling over. (A few scenes later, a different teacher comes into the teachers’ lounge absolutely raving; maybe these little prods are how Francois, who looks on a little disgusted at his colleague, keeps from acting like that guy.) And there are several more, too, about several different lessons that all seem to end this way; his students are riled up a little about something unimportant, which they’ll forget about during lunch, and Francois will stand there, hands on hips, and roll his eyes.

My personal favorite is Francois’ defense of the imperfect indicative, which none of his students seem able to grasp because none of them use it and none of them have friends and family who use it. Francois admits that it’s snobbish, but tries his best to tell them that one has to be able to switch in and out of different modes. I mostly disagree with him (not to mention kids that age can’t be expected to understand abstract grammar concepts anyway), though there’s something about his posture, standing alone in front of the class while his students hurl insults at prescriptive grammar and Francois, while willing to discuss it with them, can hardly get a word in edgewise. It’s a lesson that ends with a question about whether or not Francois is a homosexual. It’s Souleymane asking, who can’t help but try to get a leg up on his teacher; he’s one of those students who feel powerless somewhere outside the walls, or inadequate within them, and who grabs desperately and unattractively for whatever manipulative power he can grasp. The Souleymane archetype is one of the three or four most recognizable in any teacher’s mental catalog.

Things seem to snowball for Francois in awkward ways, but it’s not as if all his time in class is wasted on his personal life. He manages to lead the class in a surprisingly open discussion about shame, getting students from the involved and uninvolved sectors of his classroom to chime in. And, like virtually all good teachers, Souleymane’s challenge means that Francois intends to challenge him back. When Souleymane does a surprisingly good job on an assignment, Francois has it hung up where his classmates can see it and lets him know he’s done well; Souleymane is somewhere between mortified and deeply pleased, worried that his classmates will poke around under his shell but glad that he’s getting attention, and positive attention at that.

It turns out that Souleymane’s only decent grades, and his only half-decent behaviors, are in Francois’ class, and even Francois has to send him to the principal’s office once. In a teachers’ meeting (which has two student representatives in attendance, including Esmeralda, though they don’t seem terribly attentive), Francois has a brisk, surprisingly candid argument with one of Souleymane’s other teachers, a man named Frederic; Francois says that harsh discipline will only harden Souleymane, and that he needs a different kind of approach to be brought out of his bad behavior, but Frederic, a real miser for the rules (who has expressed that penurious mindset earlier in the film), tells Francois that he’s only interested in maintaining “social harmony” at the expense of his job responsibilities. Frederic is an interesting teacher, so interesting that I almost don’t know what to make of him; he feels less real than someone like Francois does, because he’s less a person and more a symbol of the kind of the other teacher who winds up in inner-city schools. Where Francois is flexible and, admittedly, gets points from his kids because of it, Frederic thinks about actions in terms of order, rules, consistency. He might have the will to stick out a difficult teaching position in the way that many teachers are incapable of doing, but there are hints that Frederic is not exactly Mr. Pedagogy. In one early scene, he asks Francois if Voltaire will be too difficult for his fourteen-year-old pupils.

When Esmeralda and Louise (the other class rep) tell Souleymane about the one unkind thing that Francois said in the meeting, every bit of the work that Francois has done to develop Souleymane into a better, saner student is undone. And Francois loses it.

Francois: Sorry, but laughing like that in the middle of a class meeting made you look like two skanks.

Between the walls, there are certain things that can happen which immediately break down the walls, which will be solved not by the teacher in the classroom but by parents and administrators outside of it. This is one of them; I legitimately gasped when Francois dropped “skanks” on a pair of fourteen-year-old students, as it’s a word that I cannot imagine ever using in my classroom. Aside from the fact that saying it would be a great way to get myself into a heap of trouble, it’s also profoundly unprofessional, so much worse than any of Francois’ gibing and ribbing and teasing and poking earlier in the film. And the reason you can tell is because the kids are stunned he said it. Souleymane is the same as ever; he tells Francois that isn’t language he can use on teenage girls. Souleymane is right, but when he says it, you just want to slap him. He’s in the sweet spot of a type of irony students can engage in: he knows that the teacher can’t get him in trouble, for if he does so, then he can say that the teacher questioned his sincerity, and that is an education party foul. Francois’ dander is up, though. He tells Souleymane the “white knight” routine isn’t going to work. He explains that he said “like two skanks,” as if that makes a difference. And when Souleymane storms out of the classroom, his backpack hits Khoumba in the face.

The walls tumble down.

Souleymane is ultimately expelled by a commission which has Francois on it. We don’t find out how he voted, although I personally don’t think he would have voted for expulsion; indeed, he argues against the system that makes even a disciplinary hearing into a death sentence. Frederic, amusingly enough, does a fair bit of talking on Francois’ behalf at that meeting. Francois, despite the fact that Esmeralda and Louise tell adults that their teacher called them “skanks” in the (reasonable) hope that he’ll face a punishment the way that students face punishment, gets a slap on the wrist for doing so (and that tacit support of more than one teacher) and that’s all.

The Class creates a deep intimacy between the audience and the classroom they watch which is, unsurprisingly, not unlike the kind of intimacy we’re used to seeing within a classroom without movie cameras. Affection is present but limited; intimacy has much more to do, in this case, with knowing what’s coming next. We know that some kids will sit quietly, that some will be working all the time, that some will mess around with their friends, that some will disrupt, that some will disrupt intentionally. To its credit, the film tries its best not to be slick about its setting, although one of the final scenes in the film, where Francois asks each student in turn what they learned this year before giving them a copy of their self-portraits to keep, is a touch Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Likewise, the film doesn’t pretend that this school year has really changed anyone. Francois will teach the same way that he has always done, doubtless with the same sharp tongue he’s always had. Khoumba and Rabah and Boubacar and Wey and the rest seem largely unchanged, just a little older. (Esmeralda, who for all of her misdeeds has a keen sense of humor, has read Plato’s Republic on her own time and seems to have some understanding of it: she tells Francois that “it’s not a skank’s book.”) And when the classroom is left vacant, there’s an obvious emptiness. Schools and classrooms without children are unnatural. People say that a blank page can be threatening, or symbolize opportunity. But classrooms without kids are just blank. Francois is a person when he has kids in the room, to teach or to scold or to mentor. When he’s in there, alone, after all the kids have left, he’s little more than a mirror. And while the film doesn’t end on a shot of just him – it shows us one of those wonderful games where students and teachers play against one another (in France it’s soccer, in America it would be football or dodgeball or something) – it does end on a shot of his empty classroom as it fades to black.

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