‘The Class’, winner of the Palme d’Or in 2008, is the latest creation of acclaimed French Director Laurent Cantet. It is an adaptation of Francois Begaudeau’s memoir ‘Entre les Murs’ or ‘Between the Walls’- an account of his time spent teaching in a tough Arrondissement in
Paris. The classroom setting is used to explore contemporary and universally significant issues relating to cultural diversity, education and discipline via the relationship formed between the teacher (Francois), and his class of 13 and 14 year olds.

The emphasis is very much on realism throughout: Begeaudau himself plays the teacher, the children are ‘real’ students from a
Paris school in the 20th Arrondissement, and the film is shot in a simplistic documentary style using only 3 cameras. As a result of this extreme realism the film does, at times, make the viewer feel restless as if they are being held hostage in the claustrophobic and frustrating atmosphere of the classroom. Also, the pupils perhaps seem even more distant and inscrutable than average adolescents; they are almost exclusively presented in the artificial situation of the classroom and when they do occupy the more natural environment of the playground Cantet is careful to ensure that we view them from the distance of a classroom window. However, to hold these observations up as criticisms would be to miss the point entirely: the film is not supposed to be conventionally ‘entertaining’ but is rather supposed to represent and to encourage analysis of the classroom as a microcosm of French society. With this considered, the most striking and impressive thing about ‘The Class’ is the way in which Cantet deals with the issues raised with scientific objectivity and does not alienate the audience by reducing his characters to didactic mouthpieces.

The opening classroom scene shows Francois trying to teach his class grammatical nuances. His attempts are met with puzzlement as to the purpose and relevance of language that seems archaic and irrelevant to the children. One pupil points out that ‘nobody speaks like that’, while another suggests that it is the language of ‘honkies’. Here, the central problems facing the modern teacher and the idea that the education system is in desperate need of reform are introduced. It seems significant that the teachers in the film are overwhelmingly white and one of the characters who has the greatest difficulty existing within the bourgeois system is Souleymane, a tempestuous Malian who is arguably the most ‘foreign’ of all the pupils. Thus, there is an implicit critique of the French authorities’ inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the nation’s cultural diversity and to adjust its systems and institutions to fit the more modern paradigm of its youth.

However, all sides of the argument are presented with equal skill and detachment and the pupils are not presented as helpless victims. They are often as impressive and proud as they are manipulative and spiteful and they insight much of the conflict with Francois.

It is this insistence on balance and objectivity which gives ‘The Class’ its complexity and sophistication. Part of what makes this film great but at the same time so frustrating is its refusal to offer clear solutions or even cause for hope. It seems significant that at the end it is the individual that cannot conform that suffers while the systems and institutions that alienate him remain unreformed. The overriding impression conveyed is that there are traditions and systems which are too deeply ingrained in the French psyche to be uprooted any time soon. The result is an heir of scepticism surrounding the potential to realise educational reform. When one girl finally admits to Francois, ‘I have not learned anything this year’, a sense of inertia is conjured up which aptly captures the pessimism and feelings of foreboding that pervade the end of the film.