Lessons of "The Class" extend beyond Paris
Don't mistake actor and writer François Bégaudeau's Oscar-nominated "The Class" (or "Entre les murs" in French) for "Head of the Class" or Mr. Kotter's cast of lovable TV misfits.
No, in this film of François Bégaudeau's book -- directed by Laurence Cantet -- in which the author stars as a version of himself, Mr. Marin -- is a hard-edged look at daily life in a French classroom that reflects the changing face of the country.
It seems easy to suspect, cultural differences aside, that Marin's class in Paris' 20th arrondissement bears more than a passing resemblance to urban classrooms across the United States, too.
Marin and his fellow teachers start the school year at a faculty meeting at which their cautious and guarded optimism is palpable. Their good-natured warnings to the new teachers seem only moderately tongue-in-cheek.
And when they again face their students -- played by a cast of amateurs -- it's easy to see why. Not only are the teachers faced with diverse classrooms full of 14- and 15-year-olds from a range of cultures and countries, many of the kids are struggling -- with discipline, with self control, with their own identities and, in some cases, with Mr. Marin's subject, the French language.
Marin initially appears to be able to handle the pressures pretty well. He manages to maintain control -- if barely at times -- and he can banter with the kids. But it's a slippery slope, as he is reminded, and it doesn't take much for things to sour.
When one student is insolent, he asks her to stay after class and wonders how their relationship - which the previous year was fine - soured. But neither he nor the student can answer.
Soon, the teachers are all clearly stressed out by the students and the ongoing discipline problems. The previous year 12 disciplinary hearings led to 12 explusions.
Two students attend a faculty meeting as class representatives and return to tell their classmates what the teachers said about them. This sparks a moment of weakness for Marin who makes a comment he immediately regrets.
That insult snowballs into a class disturbance that sets off a chain of events that leads to the explosion of an already volatile student. The faculty must debate how their disciplinary action may affect the home life of the kid.
Even if the movie didn't nab the Oscar for best foreign-language film, it did earn the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes last year, so it's clear that "The Class" struck a chord with the hometown crowd.
And it's easy to see why. Despite lacking experience the kids are powerful characters on screen and so is Bégaudeau, who so deftly portrays so delicate a balance of confidence and lack of ease at the head of the class that one surmises that he's barely acting, if at all.
Thanks to the cast, the film's documentary-like starkness and its lack of artsiness, "The Class" is really a memorable film.
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