Saturday, 9 January 2010

Between The Walls.

The Cannes Film Festival, and its principal prize the Palme d'Or, is one of the most prestigious prizes handed out. Different to the Oscars, it doesn't reward box office, or promotion, or celebrity. Films are selected for the French festival, determined as to whether they will compete for the main prize, and a jury of esteemed filmmakers from around the world convene to decide upon a winner. Sometimes these winners match up with major critical and commercial hits (generally when it comes to English-language titles such as Pulp Fiction and The Piano), but more often than not they are small films, sometimes by recognised auteurs, but often not (think 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days or even Gus Van Sant's Elephant.)

Interestingly, for a festival set in France, they don't often award the Palme d'Or to French films. In 1987 it was won by Sous le soleil de Satan, by Maurice Pialat, who had been in contention for the prize twice before and was up for it one time after. That was the last time a French film (though not a French-language film) won the award until 2008 when Laurent Cantet picked it up for his The Class (Entre les murs.)

Like the Dardenne Brothers' The Child three years earlier (a French-language Belgian production), the film is a naturalistic look at a segment of society that might be deemed 'less fortunate' than others. The Child was an examination of a relatively unsympathetic homeless couple, while The Class looks at an inner-city Parisian school populated by those from a lower socio-economic bracket, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants, and their teachers, particularly their French teacher François Marin (François Bégaudeau.) Marin is passionate about trying to help these children achieve, but he is constantly confronted by their own lack of drive, their lack of discipline, their self-destructive self-importance, by the fact that they are growing up far too quickly and he has no way to stop that. His frustration with their lack of discipline creates in him his own lack of discipline - he finds himself engaging in arguments that, in my mind at least, should not be engaged in by a teacher with his students. His language is inappropriate, his hostility and often his comments are inappropriate, but at no point do you judge him for it - he is forced to the juvenile level they are inhabiting in order that he might have some hope of identifying and communicating with them. Sadly, as mentioned the children have all grown up too fast, and are not going to accept this, leaving him out on a limb that it is fairly well impossible to climb back from.

Bégaudeau is a teacher in real life. In fact, all of the teachers featured are teachers, and the story is built from their own experiences. I did, in fact, think it was a documentary for a while (going back a ways - my understanding of the film around the time of its Cannes win was that it was a documentary, quickly corrected) as the elements (right down to naming the characters after the actors - also employed to a large extent in the aforementioned Palme d'Or winning Elephant) combined to give the strong impression not of being naturalistic, but of being real. This reality on the part of the performers imbues the film with a stark reality. No one is a hero. No one is an antagonist. Everyone features parts of these archetypes within themselves. When you think all hope is lost, a student shows promise, and then just as quickly discards said promise to return to their comfort zone. When you think Marin is making some headway, is possibly going to win over his students to inspire greatness, he loses it, gone as easily as it was gifted. 

This film is not Dangerous Minds. There is no happy ending here, not for anyone. Despite all of the in-class drama, the closing scene of the teachers playing the students in a football match at the end of the term shows us that this is all par for the course. Another year over, and the teachers are no closer to realising that grandiose dream of reclaiming their pupils from the heady lost world around them, but that isn't any different from the year before. As a student tells Marin that she has learnt nothing over the last nine months, upset and fearful that this shows her somehow deficient, his response is not overly sympathetic - presumably, he has heard it all before.

The problems that plagued The Child with its naturalism are to a lesser extent still visible with The Class, as far as engagement with an audience are concerned. There is a lot more to dig your teeth into with this later film, but without any truly sympathetic characters it does once again become a study of failure, or a look at the notion of failure and one's own definition of it. As such it is a very valiant effort, and a step in the right direction, but still not as compelling as one might hope. Perhaps hype also has something to do with it, though it does fare better than The Child. 3.5 stars.

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