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Entre les Murs (The Class) – too real?

December 25, 2008 pm31 10:50 pm

It’s movie season (for me, at least – almost two weeks of break and I’m not going out of town). First up? A new, French teacher movie: The Class.

The film starts with a few people in cars and on trains – teachers on their way to the first day of school. It’s a tough middle school in Paris. The new and old teachers introduce themselves, all chitchat, try to trade classes, ask about what books to use, look at each other’s class lists. And we meet François Marin, who teaches French to a class of roughly 8th or 9th graders. And for the rest of the film we stay in school, between the walls (the French title), and with M. Marin.

Des élèves de François Marin (François Bégaudeau) dans le film de Laurent Cantet, "Entre les murs". Les interprètes du film sont tous non professionnels.The class is mostly immigrants and children of immigrants: from Mali, from Morocco, from China, from the Carribean (probably from other places, as well, but we don’t learn where everyone is from). The kids are rowdy at times, focused at others. Their French is laced with slang, foreign words, and, occasionally, profanity. Some participate, you know the posture, leaning forward, arm fully extended, up and forward (but they don’t say “me me me me me”). Some lean back, laugh, don’t pay attention. (continues beneath the fold)

They talk back. He talks back. They say things they shouldn’t. So, at least once, does he. There’s parent conferences, trips to the office. There’s also a few scenes with other teachers, with administrators. We don’t see their classes, though, just a bit of their conversations with François.

There’s just enough of a story to follow. But that class! This is not Boston Public or Welcome Back Cotter (or Room 222) or Wonder Years. It is not Blackboard Jungle (filmed here in the Bronx, Wootwoot!), or Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Heathers or Carrie or The Breakfast Club. It feels very very real. Much realer than even Dazed and Confused. And for good reason.

The cast: one actor*. All others are real teachers, real students. The author plays himself. The scenes are mostly improvised. The kids never had a script in hand. The former teacher who wrote the book the film is based on, consulted, and removed anything that seemed unrealistic. Fifty students participated in a year long workshop – and 24 of them ended up in the film. They play characters, not themselves, but do it incredibly naturally. (*playing a parent)

Go see the film, and then read the interview with Director Laurent Cantet and Author François Bégaudeau. (From the main page click “The Film” and then “Laurent Cantet and Francois Begaudeau Interview”). Click each line, and scroll through. It is amazing how they pulled this off. Two quotes:

I wanted to film those incredible oratory moments that are so frequent in a classroom, where relevance or strength of position doesn’t matter much and what counts above all is to have the last word. This is a game at which adolescents excel, a sort of no-exit rhetoric into which the teachers are often pulled in as well.

We explained the situation to the two or three students featured in the scene… But they did not know how we got to this stage. As for the others, they discovered what was going on bit by bit during the take. François guided the scene like a classroom course, and I intervened during the take, honing in on the scene, asking one person to be more precise, asking another to respond to a retort, etc. Each time it was amazing to see them take off again instantly, with the same energy they had before I interrupted them, while perfectly integrating my suggestions.

I  watched The Class with another teacher (a former chapter leader from a former high school). I think it helped to be able to poke each other when we recognized something. And we did. The teacher did some nice things, got some discussion going, teased gently. I thought he crossed lines as well, made mistakes, embarrassed a kid unnecessarily. And then the circular reasoning in the teachers’ discussions, the awkward pauses. It felt like school.

It was fun to watch. Teachers may find some extras in it (maybe not) but I think everyone will enjoy this one.  (Reviews: Cinematical; Le Monde(Fr))

The Class (Entre les Murs). French with subtitles. 129 minutes. Opened in NY and LA through today (Christmas), will have a wider opening early 2009.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. j.iz permalink
    December 25, 2008 am31 6:53 am 6:53 am

    What is the pay scale in Paris Jon? That what I need to know! Do they even have a rubber room?

  2. December 26, 2008 am31 12:11 am 12:11 am

    Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

  3. December 26, 2008 am31 12:37 am 12:37 am

    You have probably seen Chalk – but I believe that featured actual students, as well, and was written by a teacher.

    I hope you are having a Happy Christmas, if that’s your deal. :-)

  4. December 26, 2008 pm31 7:24 pm 7:24 pm

    Eeks, I never saw Chalk. Or Freedom Writers. And, brace yourself, I never saw Stand and Deliver. Or To Sir… I have avoided those sorts of things, but maybe I should get a bunch of them?

    That being said, this was superb.

  5. December 26, 2008 pm31 7:50 pm 7:50 pm


    Read this Europe Magazine article (via cafe.babel) about starting teacher pay in several European countries. They note that starting in France is low:

    France takes thirteenth place in the OCDE teacher salary ranking, with teachers starting out at 20, 153 euros (£15, 681) per year. Of their thirty-five hour working week, French teachers are in the classroom for sixteen hours.

    Their rights, I am guessing, are better protected than ours. And social services in France are of course far better provided (did we see Sicko together?) Also, becoming a teacher in France appears, at least currently, to be a competitive affair. You might skim the wikipedia article.

    Finally, take a look at the article about secondary education in particular. It discusses some of the details that looked strange in the movie, including the Conseil de Classe, where each kid’s progress is discussed, and includes teachers, administrators, and student reps. (see towards the end of the section Process & Purpose. The article also discusses the differences between Lycees, Colleges, etc, which I am sure you will find of interest.

  6. December 27, 2008 am31 12:20 am 12:20 am

    Blech, you can skip Freedom Writers, in my opinion…it’s one of those “All they need is LOVE! If only teachers CARED!” kind of movies (see also: Dangerous Minds). It will also make you feel like a bad person if you don’t sacrifice everything else in your life for your job.

    Stand and Deliver makes it look like a class that didn’t understand integers was getting 5’s on the AP Calculus exam a year later, but it’s not bad despite that. It has some good lines.

    Chalk is more of a fake-documentary comedy (kind of like The Office) but I liked it.

  7. December 28, 2008 am31 1:29 am 1:29 am

    I had heard a tiny bit about this, so thanks for posting more info! I look forward to seeing it now..

  8. December 28, 2008 am31 3:49 am 3:49 am

    I think the early run closed. Keep an eye out for when it reopens. I suspect that it will hit a larger range of theaters that tend to show independent and foreign films.

    I also realized that he looked a little like my high school French teacher (when I had him and he was new and full of energy, not when I went back and found him old and bald and a little slowed down)


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