The Class (Entre Les Murs), which can be be seen at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, November 18 at the Starz FilmCenter as part of the 31st annual Starz Denver Film Festival, comes with a tony pedigree. The film won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival and has been chosen as France's official entry in the Academy Awards' best foreign film category -- which perhaps explains why it was introduced prior to its first screening, on November 16, by new Denver Film Society executive director Burleigh "Bo" Smith and a representative from the French embassy in Los Angeles. It was something of a relief, then, to discover the artless simplicity of the movie itself -- at least from a presentational perspective. Thematically, however, the documentary-style feature is admirably craggy and complex.
Director Laurent Cantet's offering is based on Between the Walls, a memoir by a teacher named François Bégaudeau, who plays himself. That sounds like a recipe for worshipfulness, but the film is refreshingly free of the educational heroics that mark Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers and other typical Hollywood efforts to dramatize the classroom. Over the course of a single school year, Bégaudeau interacts with a diverse collection of unruly middle-school students and alternately devoted and exasperated fellow teachers, most of whom are portrayed by acting non-professionals, and while he comes across as genuinely dedicated to the work, he also makes mistakes. In one key sequence, he's drawn into a heated verbal exchange that leads him to declare that two students had acted "like skanks" at an earlier meeting. His words trigger an outburst by another classmate that leads to an expulsion hearing. At first, Bégaudeau tries to cover up his part in escalating the incident -- and although he subsequently recommends punishment that takes into account his own culpability, he finds that the system isn't designed for such nuance.
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Teachers and educators, like the one to whom I'm married, will undoubtedly be fascinated by the dynamics at work throughout the film; there's much to debate about whether Bégaudeau's teaching methods properly challenge students or invite the sort of undisciplined dialogues that can cause more problems than they solve. But young people, too, will identify with the tinderbox atmosphere. On the 16th, I attended with my daughter Lora, who, at age fifteen, is only a year or two older than the students on the screen -- and she came away sympathizing more with Bégaudeau than her own near-peers.
The American title of the film is appropriate, since director Cantet is clearly dealing with class divisions that go well beyond the schoolhouse, to encompass age, race, national origin, income level, etc. But he resists the temptation to get overtly pedagogical. He allows the drama to unfold naturalistically, trusting that audience members will take the time to sort out the messy implications of the tale. That most will eagerly accept this challenge speaks to The Class' accessibility and relatability -- qualities not always associated with winners of the Palme d'Or. -- Michael Roberts