February 2009

Arts & Letters

Life inside

By Luke Davies
Laurent Cantet’s ‘The Class’

In the staff room at the beginning of a school year, François (François Bégaudeau), a French teacher at a Parisian middle school, chats with the new history teacher, who is outlining with matter-of-fact certainty his term plan for Year 9. The teacher’s ideas seem grand and ambitious. “The Enlightenment,” François offers, trying not to burst the newcomer’s bubble, “will be tough for them.” Nearly 30 years ago, the Australian author Richard Tulloch wrote Year 9 Are Animals. The title still resonates as one of those perfect phrases: who doesn’t remember that restless wasteland of biding your time, and the dumb animal agony of adolescence? Year 9 are surely the great Unenlightened. You can throw as much Lord of the Flies or Diary of Anne Frank at them as you like, and they will treat it with a desultory disdain that knows no national boundaries.

Le Journal d’Anne Frank makes an appearance in Laurent Cantet’s engaging and delightful The Class (now in cinemas), a documentary-style drama made with real Year 9 students and filmed in Paris with a skeleton crew over the course of a school yearProving that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, François at one point uses Frank’s story as a way of introducing the idea of journal writing to the students. But they resist. “What we write won’t be as intense as Anne Frank. Our lives won’t be as gripping,” says Khoumba (Rachel Régulier). “The bare facts of your life are dull,” François agrees. “But what you feel is interesting.” “That’s our business,” Khoumba shoots back, tartly. Cantet’s film vividly reminds us of the degree to which adolescence is a pathologically heightened state of self-obsession, and how adults are to be treated at all times with suspicion.

As adults go, François is one of the good ones, though. Bégaudeau really is a French teacher, and he is a terrific actor, too. Cantet had been thinking about making a film set in a junior-high school when Bégaudeau’s memoir of teaching in an ethnically diverse Parisian school was published, in 2006. Out of the meeting of the two men, and in the transformation of the work from book to screen, a fascinating film has been made, with an unusual methodology. The book followed real situations as they emerged, without a clear narrative other than that of the school term and daily events. Cantet and the screenwriter, Robin Campillo, structured a fiction by focusing on certain of those situations. The Class avoids the tired old Hollywood tale of one teacher turning young savages into young adults; rather, it goes through the often inconsequential minutiae of the daily classroom grind, all the boredom and the insolence, the flashes of anger and delight, in a nondescript school in the shabby 20th Arrondissement.

Cantet allowed anyone aged 13 to 15 at Françoise Dolto Junior High School to participate in his workshops. Eighty students turned up initially; 50 turned up the next week and, over time, of that core group the “class” eventually self-selected to about 25 who wanted to stay the distance. Of those, we get to know ten or 12, of whom we spend time in depth with six or seven. (We briefly get to know some of their parents, too.) One of the film’s manifold subtle pleasures is that we don’t know who will rise to prominence in the storyline. The journey unfolds slowly, and we are lost in a blackboard jungle of listless adolescent ennui and defiance, before a small incident snowballs and a dramatic climax approaches. As in any jungle, life is a power struggle, and sometimes watching Bégaudeau get his students interested – in language, experience, anything – is like watching a boa constrictor wrestle with its prey. Hard though it is to work out whether the teacher or the students are the great python, the spectacle is mesmerising.

Memorable among the students is Esmérelda (Esmérelda Ouertani), a cheeky livewire who is relatively unafraid of challenging François – sometimes with reason and sometimes, it seems, merely for effect, because pushing teachers’ limits as cleverly as possible is one of the ways 15-year-olds build status among peers. Esméralda’s insouciance becomes, if not charming, then at least bearable. She comes through with a striking and shyly sensitive scene at film’s end which, according to production notes, was largely her own idea, and surprised even the film-makers.

There’s Souleymane (Franck Keïta), a brooding boy of North African descent who is both troubled and troublesome, and who gets himself into hot water late in the film, where a disciplinary hearing will decide whether he is to be expelled or not. In a subplot, Cherif (Cherif Bounaïdja Rachedi) will find conflict with Carl (Carl Nanor), who is trying to find, or create, his new identity in a new place. Wei (Wey Huang), whose charmingly bad French in no way inhibits his loquaciousness, seems blithely unconcerned with his North African or Middle Eastern classmates. Louise (Louise Grinberg) and the token Goth, Arthur (Arthur Fogel), appear to be the only whites in the class, underlining the radically multicultural nature of the new France, with all its implicit tensions.

It is easy to think that the students are merely playing versions of themselves, but Cantet is at pains to point out that, given the right scenarios, these teenagers revelled in the chance to become someone different. Bégaudeau has spoken, for instance, of Rachel Régulier, who plays Khoumba: in one scene that depicts heated conflict after class between Khoumba and François, Cantet asked her to “be a real pain”. Régulier does that in spades, despite being, as Bégaudeau describes her, “so sweet and kind in real life”.

In general, the students’ real parents play their parents in the film, and the concerns they raise at the parent-teacher meetings are of their own devising and have a sweet, universally recognisable simplicity. These parents are the bridge to the world outside the school, and the children they think they know are hardly the children we see before us. The French title, in fact, of both Bégaudeau’s book and Cantet’s film is Entre les murs (Between the Walls)In the opening shot of the film, François drinks a coffee in a crowded café; we then follow him as he descends into the closed world of the school. From that moment, we don’t return to the outside world. It’s not suffocating in there – it’s too fly-on-the-wall fascinating to remind us how small our surroundings are – yet we become strangely attuned to the fully functioning microcosm.

This might merely mean that we come to sympathise with the children’s points of view. Or that we come to remember just how alien teachers really seemed to us. They existed in the classroom, in a certain function; back then, we could barely imagine them with home lives, hobbies, interests, passions. Esmérelda captures the essence of this, in a scene where François is working hard at conveying the complexities of the subjunctive tense – grammar being something they still apparently teach in France. The class is not enjoying the pace, and Esmérelda snorts derisively at François.

Esmérelda: When was the last time you heard someone use that?

François: Yesterday, with my friends, I heard the imperfect subjunctive.

Esmérelda: No, but someone normal.

François pushes ahead. “You gain intuition by using the language,” he insists. For Cantet, in fact:

the entire film is constructed around language ... 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.

François does his best not to be pulled in too deep, though there are moments when, in his attempts to deal with the students at their own level, he seems vulnerable and afraid, like just another schoolboy bluffing his way through menace with a racing heart. The yard scenes, shot with telephoto lenses, with the actors miked – shades of The Conversation – are particularly vivid. When François speaks his mind at a staff meeting at which Louise and Esmérelda are the note-taking student representatives (democracy in education – only in France!), François speaks of Souleymane as being “academically limited”, but this gets quickly reported back to the class as “limited”.

Within minutes Souleymane has exploded, accidentally hitting Khoumba, brazenly shifting to the familiar tu in addressing François, setting in motion the train of events that will lead to his disciplinary hearing. But it will hardly be the school which expels Souleymane; in all but body, he’s been gone for a while. At the hearing, Souleymane translates for his mother, an angry, concerned woman in traditional North African dress; it is terribly touching, his resigned glumness in the midst of his humiliation, and the way he doesn’t sugar-coat the translation.

There is art to the apparent artlessness of it all. To Cantet, a class is:

a community of 25 people who did not choose one another, but who have been called upon to be together and work together between four walls for an entire year. Souleymane is first seen as merely another student of this classroom, equal to the others. After an hour of chronicle, a story takes shape and he is the centre of it. Only in retrospect do we realise that everything was already in place before.

In To Be and to Have (2002), Nicolas Philibert’s exquisite documentary about a one-classroom school in rural France, the teacher Georges Lopez is a kind of child-whisperer, creating an extraordinarily gentle and meditative environment in which his young charges can be most fully themselves. With older, edgier students in an edgier, more chaotic Paris, François Bégaudeau seems to have his work a little more cut out for him. “You can’t spend nine months at school and not learn anything,” an exasperated François says to Esmérelda at one point. “Yes, you can,” she snaps. “I’m the living proof.”

“I don’t understand what we do,” another student says. “In French?” asks François. “In everything,” the student replies. If Bégaudeau the teacher is anything like the teacher he portrays in the film, that lack of understanding won’t matter, ultimately. François is like the character Glory Boughton in the Marilynne Robinson novel Home, who comes to understand, of the children she taught for many years, that her role as a teacher had essentially been that of “helping them assume their humanity”. François embodies this generosity, even though he knows it can be a thankless task. He would take comfort in Glory’s remembrances of how she dealt with those long-ago students, so filled with both yearning and doubt. “People have always made poetry, she told them. Trust that it will matter to you.”

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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