Entre Les Murs

French cinema goes back to school, but is life stranger than fiction?

The new academic year is well underway, and for one young teacher, frustrated with the perennial lack of effort from his inattentive pupils, it's all become too much. Barging into the staffroom he vents his anger for all to hear. ‘They can stay in their shit,’ he declares. ‘It’s like they’re animals.’

Well, not quite. The kids in Entre Les Murs (The Class) - all played by non-professional actors - aren’t really that bad at all. They’re no angels, but considering their inner city Parisian backgrounds, they aren’t the devils you might expect either.

Based on the autobiographical book by former teacher François Beauteous - who plays a version of himself in the lead role - this Laurent Cantet film continues French cinema’s gallant tradition of bucking Hollywood trends (in this case see Dangerous Minds, One Eight Seven et cetera, et cetera) to show life, to all intents and purposes, through the gritty black mirror, unsentimental and all the better for it.

When not contending with his students’ frequent digressions, M Marin teaches French grammar. His is a typically multi-cultural class inhabited by the usual smattering of overbearing alpha males and females. No matter how hard the usual suspects push, however, Marin keeps his head, biting his lip when others, like his uptight colleague, would lose the rag.

Yet there are no villains in this piece. As infuriating as some of the pupils can be, you feel for the mouthy ones because you’re aware - as is the longsuffering Marin - that they don’t have much more than the voices they were born with. And whilst other teachers argue that where they end parents should begin, Marin lobbies for change, despite the predicament he ultimately finds himself in.

The Class is as close to documentary as drama can get - so much so that it gets a little tedious at times. There isn’t much plot going on, and the only moves away from the classroom are into the staffroom, where, in meetings, the teachers show their own failings by continually managing not to reach consensus.

So why not just make a documentary in the first place, with real blood, alcoholic teachers with trembling fingers, teen sex, indifferent parents? Perhaps Cantent saw in Beauteous what Sean Penn and his fellow Cannes judges ultimately saw - someone who’s story was worth telling. The Class certainly has its dramatic merits - enough to warrant the 2008 Palme D’Or.

For a bunch of 14-year old kids from the Parisian ‘hood, the young cast can’t half act. Only once do any of them look directly into camera, and you suspect that Cantet kept that shot in on purpose - it's hilarious - as a football manager would reward a remarkable performance by substituting a player with one minute to go.

The charismatic and frankly rather handsome Beauteous is also a natural in front of camera - self-assured and restrained, he further adds to the authenticity of the piece. He’s been there and written the book as a teacher, but on the strength of this performance he could certainly go on to much bigger and better things as an actor. A Vincent Cassell Mark II, if he wants it.

Perhaps there have been better documentaries made about the realities of inner city comprehensives and the teenagers who attend them, but few cinematic adaptations on the subject could better Cantet‘s effort. 

For those with a penchant for the uplifting, the odd Hollywood picture like Mr Holland’s Opus has its place. For those who prefer life rather than fantasy through a lens, Queen’s Film Theatre isn’t that far to travel.

Entre Les Murs runs in the Queen's Film Theatre until March 11.

Lee Henry