Monday, 1 March 2010

The Class

Synopsis: Parisien teacher Francois muddles through a year with some tough kids. Makes some stupid decisions. Etre et avoir it ain't.

The Class (original French title: Entre les murs - Between the Walls) won the 2008 Palme D'Or at Cannes and rightly so. This had me opened mouthed at times, such is its honesty and bravery. The film has a cast of mostly real teachers and pupils and is based on the lead character's memoir of life in a French school. It has all the 'realness' of a documentary but without the naff voiceover and patronising tone. This is film where everybody makes mistakes and no-one solves any problems.

Interesting points for me:

The whole film is set inside the school, pretty much in the one classroom. There's no showing Francois out at night with his mates, getting all shouty and dramatic about the events during the day. All you see are the (often fraught, and almost always uncomfortable) interactions between teacher, pupil and parents/family. It's not claustrophobic, but it does pull you in to that world so you really do feel like a fly on the wall or another pupil, watching the events unfold over the school year.

They don't feel like performances at all. It really does feel as if you're part of the action. Not one of the 'actors' look as if they're acting, it's all properly naturalistic. And the way the scenes unfold feel much more than mere improvisation - they are REALLY HAPPENING. Yes, you think, that is how a teacher would react to that question. Yes, you think, that is how a small disagreement gets way out of hand. I don't know if it took much rehearsal, or maybe no rehearsal at all but Streep, Pacino et al have never performed like this. I know that's not the point, but there's so little bullshit to the action, it opens your eyes to what filmmaking can sometimes do.

Dramatic tension
At times this film is very uncomfortable to watch. Not because there's any graphic violence, bad language (okay, there is a bit of bad language) or horror. It's uncomfortable because they are showing you real life awkward moments. When a teacher insults two female pupils (sort of) inadvertantly, you immediately know that he's made a dreadful mistake and you can't help get that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. You've been there, made an ass of yourself and didn't know how to get out of it.

There are also the countless moments in the classroom when the rowdy pupils are giving Francois a tough time, constantly questioning the status quo and his treatment of them. There is also the relationship between Francois and Khoumba, a pupil going through a typical difficult teenage phase. Neither of them have a clue how to really handle it but it is Khoumba who at least attempts to express it in a letter to Francois.

However, for me, the most dramatic moment in the film is when a troubled and troublesome pupil and his mother attend a school hearing to decide if he is to be expelled. It's not only that his whole future could be in jeapordy if he's expelled (although this point is not laboured half as much as it would have been in a conventional film), it's that he has to translate for his mother when she is defending him, something that he wouldn't do for himself. It is a properly heartbreaking scene.

The film ends with a teacher vs. pupil football match at the breakup of school for the summer holidays. Nothing has really been resolved because that's what life is like and we know that Francois will have the same difficulties the following year.

This film is powerful in that it doesn't shy away from the pain of life but it is very delicate in its portrayal of this. There are no great speeches or 'maverick' characters delivering cocky one-liners. This is about as realistic and honest a portrayal of difficult human relationships as I've seen in a long time.

See also: 400 blows, Etre et Avoir, Half Nelson.

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