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I Hate Mathematics and Racists

The Class (Entre les murs) Dir. Laurent Cantet, Now Playing.

Changing the face of a French classroom. ©Sony Picture Classics.
Changing the face of a French classroom. ©Sony Picture Classics.

The Class is funny, true-to-life, and hard to classify. Loosely based on the memoir by François Bégaudeau about his experience as a literature teacher in an inner city high school in a working-class neighborhood, Class stars the author in a fictionalized version of himself. The film crosses the borders of memoir, documentary, and realistic drama. The students in the class are real Parisian public school kids from the same school in the remote, working-class 20th arrondissement, playing slightly exaggerated versions of themselves. Shot over one school year in cinéma-vérité style based on a half-scripted, half-improvised script, the film resembles an eavesdropped version of a slice of life.

The most touching moment in this reconstructed virtual world is seemingly staged: a newcomer arrives in class—new because he was just expelled from another school, which we would soon learn is a common practice in the system—and reads his brief and rather crude self-portrait directly to the audience. It’s a subtle turn in the plot, subverting the impression I got from the trailer, and the earlier part of the film, of a story about a group of misbehaving, sometimes unteachable students and their well-intentioned but perplexed teacher. In a film full of teasing, back talk, and verbal skirmishes between the teacher and the students, this rare uninterrupted soliloquy shows the student at his truest, most vulnerable, and most willing to learn. It’s the whisper that sometimes sounds louder in chaotic quarrels or heated debates. 

The students in Mr. Marin’s French literature class refuse to whisper. Like any other urban teens, they text with their cell-phones under the desk, travel the city well beyond their neighborhood, are terrified of losing face in front of their peers but never hesitate to challenge the teacher or each other just for the sake of having the last word. Most of them are of African, Carribean, Asian, or Arab descent who don't feel welcome in their adopted country, and that informs the topics of debate—the “whitey” names in teacher’s examples, the "bourgeois" case of the imperfect subjective mood, who best deserves the African National Soccer Cup. These are the moments when the unruly kids peep out of their trouble-making, badass public masks, but as we are in a French literature class­—“between the walls” was the original title of the film—everything has to relate to the problems of language. 

The result is a classroom operating on the basis of word play. A devoted and reasonably aggressive teacher, Mr. Marin grasps at every possible chance to teach his students the proper use of the French language. “What does that mean?” “So how do you call this?” rhythmically punctuates his encounters with the students. He manages to teach the word “insolent” when a student refuses to read in class, and “insult” when another stirs up discord. It is his duty to correct, refine, and interpret; he also uses word play to attract the students’ scattered attention. He has to rely on his authority over the language he is teaching, and for all his good intentions cannot always relate the lesson to the students' experience, feeling, and intuition. (“But, Sir, what is intuition?” a student asks.)

When he tries to pin down an Arab student’s account of the shame he experienced at a party full of cheese-stinking people and bacon-flavored snacks by asking, “so it has something to do with race?”, the student asserts that he would never understand their perspective. Yet the students themselves are resistant to link their experience to the education they are receiving. At the end of a long and frustrating day, a girl complains to Mr. Marin: “In a French class you should talk about French, not about our grandparents, brothers, or girls’ periods.”

In his role as a guardian of culture, Mr. Marin has to play the good and liberal—can we mention the word?—colonialist, transforming the intruding barbarians into assimilable citizens. This underlies his pedagogical dilemma. He tries to encourage the students’ self-expression with the reading of The Diary of Anne Frank and an assignment of self-portraits of their own, but the correcting, refining, and interpreting required in his teaching limits, if not suffocates, this self-expression. He undertakes one of the noblest tasks of an educator, provoking students to think and cultivating their social and cultural identity, but the whole film gives the warning that this aspirational, unified cultural identity has all but disappeared.

At one point, a conflict concerning the exact meaning of the word “skank,” who can use the word, in what manner and at what time, wreaks havoc in the classroom and sends Mr. Marin reluctantly back to the role of an authoritarian. The classroom becomes a microcosm of the French society infected by post-colonial blues; the lively skirmishes over language forecast the failure of the system. 

Laurent Cantet documented this dilemma into a lively, entertaining drama without falling into trying to direct where we look and interpret what we see. Instead, he uses three HD cameras—one for the teacher, one for the students, another one to capture telling details on the side—to catch the constant verbal tennis. In keeping the camera close to the faces of the rebellious, shy, or bored youngsters and allowing them to talk, the film appears refreshingly natural. The young actors perform in an eager and effortless manner, though their occasional stutters and confusion proves more moving, and seems more true. The camera seldom ventures out of Mr. Marin’s classroom and never leaves the campus. In the teacher’s office, the discussion of the possible deportation of a student's undocumented mother is interrupted by a teacher’s eager announcement of her pregnancy. We never hear another word about her; Cantet’s social realistic approach confines us to the public sphere and the teacher’s scope only. 

Cantet certainly sees the dominant irony, and treats the students as symptoms revealing the defects of the “democratic” system the school claims as its point of being. It’s painful to see Mr. Marin trying to relate to the African and Chinese mothers who simply don’t understand his language, and heartbreaking to hear a student in trouble with the system translating to the school disciplinary committee his mother’s apology on his behalf. Mr. Marin stumbles, too. As if mocking on his assignment to the students, he has to write a confessional report to the school bureaucracy about some experience of shame. Once the only person able to help a student out of the vicious circle in his life, Mr. Marin now becomes his worst enemy. 

The film ends with an empty classroom and a bitter note. The questions it poses—about education, assimilation, authority, and identity—ring equally true in the public school system in this country. The film does not offer any solutions. A worthy complementary film might be something made by a graduate of the Françoise Dolto High School, using the finer French language she has learned to talk about her grandparents, brothers, and if she likes, her periods. But first, don’t forget to come to class at 9:30 promptly, bring a self-portrait of five paragraphs, with at least one sentence in imperfect subjunctive.


Lu Chen

LU CHEN is a contributor to the Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2009

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