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By Richard Porton
Schoolroom films appeal to both mainstream and radical filmmakers because the setting often functions as a laboratory for—to use the current buzzword—change. Whether in fiercely independent films such as Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (1933) or Hollywood boilerplate on the order of Blackboard Jungle (1955), or even Dangerous Minds (1995), classrooms invariably crystallize societal tensions. By their conclusions, films of both subgenres have usually prescribed tentative cures. A prototypical radical film, Zéro de conduite advocates nothing less than full-scale insurrection, while the Dangerous Minds of the world end up as liberal-reformist movies that assume charismatic leadership, embodied by a dynamic teacher-protagonist, will redeem the sorry lives of their misbegotten students.
Laurent Cantet’s Entre les murs (The Class), awarded the Palme d’Or by unanimous decision of the jury, and termed a “seamless” movie by president Sean Penn, is a slippery piece of work. It partially reinforces the seemingly benign authoritarianism and facile hero worship inherent in the “blackboard jungle” paradigm, while half-heartedly critiquing the teacher hero’s charismatic authority. Although Variety’s Justin Chang called Entre les murs “a welcome corrective” to “Yank” films like the aforementioned Dangerous Minds (and The New York Times’ A.O. Scott likewise bashed the Michelle Pfeiffer potboiler in order to praise the more sophisticated French film), Cantet’s film is an admittedly less cheesy, more subtle version of the much-reviled Yank template. In other words, a crowdpleaser. Certainly not without its charms, Cantet’s film is primarily intriguing for the contradictions it embodies, as well as its ambivalent view of the French educational system and the ideological consensus it represents.
Shot in what lazy critics have termed a “documentary style” (but with a glossy, widescreen aesthetic that corresponds to precious few documentaries), Cantet’s film certainly makes efforts to maintain an ironic distance from both lived experience and its source material. Perhaps consciously avoiding the embarrassing disparity between documentary idealism and old-fashioned greed which resulted in the gentle rural schoolmaster of Nicolas Philibert’s Etre et avoir (2002) suing for a cut of the film’s profits, Cantet’s film is securely anchored in the fictional realm. Skillfully dodging James Frey-style fabrications, former junior high-school teacher (and Cahiers du Cinéma contributor) François Bégaudeau plays a fictional version of himself based on his autobiographical novel. Self-effacing (in a suspiciously arrogant fashion), Bégaudeau insists in interviews that he is “not a star,” merely the “main character” in a supremely democratic film. And in a loose narrative directed by a non-doctrinaire leftist, the emphasis is primarily on the interchanges between the intrepid, but conspicuously flawed instructor, and the students, played by appealing non-professionals, in his always lively, multicultural class. The superficial spontaneity of the classroom scenes was the result of meticulous preparation. The cast participated in extended workshops in which—prompted by Bégaudeau’s suggestions—extended improvisations formed the basis of the final script.
Many of the predominantly comic interludes in the film’s first half do in fact wittily deflect Bégaudeau’s hubris—despite the fact that he flaunts this self-styled hubris as a strategically ironized badge of honour. As a case in point, a protracted exchange on the affectations of the imperfect subjunctive reiterates how language reflects class stratification in ultra-hierarchical France. The debate on this notoriously thorny slice of French grammar propels the students and their reliably argumentative teacher into a debate in which their arguments, and social roles, almost appear pre-determined. The kids, unsurprisingly, complain that “no one speaks like this,” while Bégaudeau, perhaps partially with tongue in cheek, vigorously defends the subjunctive as part of the French literary arsenal. In another pivotal scene, Khoumba, an intelligent, but consistently irascible student, puts her instructor’s patience to the test by refusing to read an excerpt from The Diary of Anne Frank aloud in class. Interestingly enough, the debates about Anne Frank’s “relevance” to a multi-ethnic group of students that would probably take place in a North American milieu are sidestepped, and Khoumba’s sullenness is viewed as more of a reaction to what she perceives as her instructor’s hostility than a tangible critique of French universalism.
While Cantet misses few opportunities to underline his protagonist’s flaws, there is ultimately a smugness to Entre les murs that allows Bégaudeau to triumph despite the film’s ostentatious emphasis on his verbal infelicities and gift for pedagogical self-sabotage. As the movie sputters towards a conclusion that a small group of dissenting critics have rightly categorized as glib, the melodramatic ante is upped, and the good will Cantet has earned by dint of some slight, but charming, vignettes begins to dissipate. A rather trumped-up controversy between the unorthodox teacher, a surly African student named Souleymane, and Esmeralda, a feisty Algerian girl, sucks the life out of what could have been a spirited evisceration of French educational shibboleths. Esmeralda, somehow the student representative to the school’s faculty meeting, becomes enraged that Bégaudeau refers to Souleymane as “limited.” Caught off guard, he petulantly dismisses Esmeralda and one of her female pals, as “behaving like skanks.” Yet, when the chastened teacher makes his cinematically mandated amends (after initially failing to integrate his gaffe into another grammar lesson), a class discussion summing up the year’s achievements features Esmeralda’s colloquial tribute to Plato’s Republic. The clumsiness of this narrative coup de grace is truly startling: slapped on the wrist for mild political incorrectness, the hapless teacher is re-coronated as an antic philosopher king and avatar of Socratic dialogue.
In the final analysis, the failings of Entre les murs—its star’s faux humility notwithstanding—can be ascribed to an unwillingness to confront the systemic roots of educational inequality. The charm of Abdel Kechiche’s L’esquive (2003) resided in the efforts of marginalized kids of North African origin to appropriate classical French literature for their own needs. While their nondescript white teacher stays safely in the background, screen hog Bégaudeau emerges as an insufferable magister ludi. The late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, perhaps the most trenchant critic of French educational privilege, unwittingly located the central quandary of Entre les murs in his work on “education and domination” by asserting that the “Jacobin ideology on which the traditional criticism of the teaching system is based, as well as certain traditional criticism of government reform of this system, actually justify the system under the guise of challenging it, as well as justifying the pedagogical conservatism of a number of those who demand these reforms.”
Despite indubitably good intentions, Bégaudeau’s innovative teaching methods end up “justifying” the structural inequality they seek to circumvent. This sort of indictment would doubtless piss off the self-assured teacher, since he even invokes Bourdieu’s terminology in the press book, claiming quite reasonably that “a school… is, in the end, discriminatory, unequal, it fabricates reproduction, etc.” What Bégaudeau can obviously not admit, however, is that his scenario always puts him centre stage as the film’s puppetmaster. As Bourdieu observes, “the school also has a function of mystification…it persuades those whom it eliminates that their social destiny…is due to their lack of natural gifts, and in this way contributes to preventing them from discovering that their individual destiny is a particular case of a collective one.” Like countless schoolroom movies, Entre les murs mystifies the educational process by maintaining that dreary, reactionary classrooms can be transformed by the empathetic, if ultimately condescending, intervention of a heroic teacher. The fact that Cantet is more conscious of these pitfalls than his many Hollywood precursors does not excuse his film’s fundamental dishonesty.