Entre Les Murs (The Class) is a great film for one reason: authenticity. The film could have been another expendable drama; the premise of a good-hearted teacher trying to connect with troubled kids is nothing new. But Entre Les Murs approaches this premise with a disarming, no-frills authenticity in place of the clichés the audience may expect. The result is a film that does not charm with feel-good platitudes but rather communicates a realistic picture of the struggles of inner-city education.
Entre Les Murs has been dubbed a “docu-fiction” because of its fictional realism. François Bégaudeau, the author of the novel Entre Les Murs from which the film was adapted, also co-wrote the screenplay with Laurent Cantet and plays the film’s lead. Francois is not a trained actor, and that serves him well. One can sense a greater authenticity as he draws from the experiences that inspired his book instead of manufactured emotions for his performance. The character of the idealistic teacher is a difficult one to portray - too many are subpar imitations of Robin Williams’s magnificent role in Dead Poets Society, but François does well to differentiate himself from type. He is neither a cynic nor a romantic. Rather, he buckles down and does what is necessary to ensure the success of his students, even if that requires being strict with them. The entire film is set within the school grounds and while at times this feels too confining, it prevents the film from becoming overly ambitious. Its purpose is to tell a singular experience and tell it well. The audience does not see a single aspect of François’s personal life (save for one question about his sexuality from Souleymane). This is both a detriment and a wise character choice. The audience longs to know more about François’s life, especially his motivation to teach in such an underfunded and arduous environment. This narrow view, however, is crucial to his authenticity. François is wholly a teacher, and nothing else.
The student performances, which are the meat of the film, are just as organic. They are not actors, nor were they selected through an audition process. The class was approached by François and his team to participate in the film. Their scenes in the classroom, the epicenter of the film’s plot, were built largely through improvisation. As a result, their interactions with one another are genuine depictions of French pre-adolescent relationships. Sometimes, they are wild and insolent; at other times, they feel misunderstood and frightened by their futures. These kids are likely playing versions of themselves, and the uninhibited nature of their performances evokes surprising empathy from the audience.
Laurent Cantet, who directed the film, deftly balances “sloppy” camera movements with clean, steady shots; he often zooms quickly into the students’ faces, reminding the audience that they are the essence of the film. The result is a work of art that physicality mimics the experiences of the students, which are mostly chaotic but interspersed with moments of clarity. One particular shot comes to mind: the tableau of empty desks and chairs at the end, which emphasizes not only the absence of the students during summer vacation, but also the absence of a promising educational future in their lives.
Entre Les Murs is painfully relevant to the fears of French youth. It does not pander with a peachy ending but confronts the grim future many French adolescents are facing. Attending university in France is not nearly as common as in the United States, and changing aspirations is difficult to do in the French high school specialization system. The majority attend vocational school, forcing French adolescents to sacrifice their dreams for fear of pursuing non-lucrative careers and becoming unemployed. Entre Les Murs accurately depicts what happens in inner-city schools: the fights, the rowdiness, the expulsions, and the struggle to actually learn. But the film does not force pity from the audience. It fleshes the students out as real people, not simply the recipients of charitable causes or the archetypes of poverty.
Entre Les Murs is not only a great film, but it is also an important film. It is a nuanced glimpse into a culture that has different struggles from our own, despite being so closely linked to us.