Yesterday, PJ and I watched Entre Les Murs, or The Class, a French film that was nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars this year. I wasn’t going to watch it with him at first, but then I was too tried to get off the couch. I’m glad I saw it: I loved it!

Here’s the trailer:

The film’s plot is deceptively simple: novelist and teacher François Bégaudeau plays a version of himself as the film follows his class over the course of a school year. The students in the class are played by non-actors; they’re kids from Paris who helped develop the dialogue and action through improvisation workshops with the director, Laurent Cantet, and Bégaudeau.

Nothing terribly dramatic happens over the course of the film. We see the teachers and their discussions in the teachers’ lounge. We see the kids, mostly in French class but also in the school yard, a concrete playground on which they sometimes play soccer. Some kids excel in class; others get into trouble. So in this way, The Class feels more like a documentary about a relatively nondescript junior class on French grammar.

But the film is about a lot more than just that. Most prominently, it’s about the racially mixed students and how they and the French education system do and do not deal with the complicated dynamics of class, race, and education that occur as a result of immigration from Africa and Asia. PJ and I were both struck by the film’s seeming critique of the French educational system and its complete lack of sensitivity to or accommodation of racial difference despite the fact that the racial composition of this classroom is nothing like what it might have been 30 years ago. These children of immigrants are pretty much left to sink or swim, creating a climate of hostility, violence, and even small tragedies.

The Class is also about the teachers. Why becomes a teacher? Why remain a teacher when it seems that none of your students are learning anything? What motivates you to try harder tomorrow? Should you befriend your students or terrorize them? When should a student’s family life be taken into consideration and when should it not when that student causes disruptions in class? This film is asking a lot of serious questions about education, and one of the things I like most about it is that it doesn’t try to answer them all. At least not explicitly.

Bégaudeau is excellent as François Marin, the teacher. Importantly, we come to admire him over the course of the film, which complicates our reaction to something he says later in the film. I love the way the films sets up this problem, showing us that teachers are people too.

The kids are also all great. I imagine it must have been difficult for them and for the director; they all did a wonderful job.

The Class is probably the best film I’ve seen this year. I love its documentary feel and the sense of realism it conveys to the audience. I wouldn’t have minded if the characters had broken out into song at some point, however — I’ve clearly seen too many French musicals! One of the kids seems to be more than a little fey, but otherwise the film doesn’t really deal with issues of sexuality. But the gay kid’s presence — and the fact his sexuality was never the point of any scene — is in itself a very interesting political statement. And there are a couple of hot teachers!

Now I’ll have to decide whether I should add this movie to my favorites from last year, when it actually came out, or this year, when I saw it. Either way, it’s a great movie, and I highly recommend it.

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