Off the streets

Mike Belbin reviews Laurent Cantet's The class (on general release)

French-speaking cinema of the last half century has been accused of only dealing with the middle class, even if they are young rebels or a small shopkeeper. One prominent exception being the wandering street youth of La haine (1995). On the other hand, British movies are known globally for their interest in scallywags, hard-up families and the demotic generally. Over the last decade however, the Belgian Dardenne brothers (Rosetta, L’enfant) have given us films about characters, often young too, on the margins of society - that is, on low wages, just out of prison or doing community service.

Laurent Cantet, director of Entre les murs (‘Within the walls’; titled The class in English) has also shown a concern with projects exploring work/life balance and interclass relationships. His Timeout (2001) centres on an office worker who cannot bear to tell his family he has been made redundant, while Heading south (2005) shows tourist women in Haiti patronising local youths for sex and companionship. The class focuses on the schoolroom interaction of a teacher and a group of today’s working class teens. Though it starts from the point of view of the middle class teacher, it manages, through the incidents chosen and the performances given, to widen out the perspective to include those of the cosmopolitan students, as well as a more general sense of context.

Based on a memoir by François Bégaudeau, who plays the main teacher, the story was reportedly made out of improvisations between him, the students and other actors. The names of the students in the credits are the first names of the people playing them and the location is the actual Françoise Dolto Junior High School in Paris’s 20th arrondissement. This method owes something, of course, to the British Loach and Leigh style of working with loose scripts and devising scenes through improvisation, often with non-professional actors.

Apart from the opening scenes of François’s arrival in the morning, the camera stays resolutely within the walls of the school - the classroom, offices and yard (the period covered runs from September to June: one school year).

Despite this, the film does succeed in bringing to mind the power of the forces beyond them. Not only popular culture, especially football, but the dimensions of poverty, family disadvantage and state oppression. The film often suggests these with a precision lacking in many British docudramas.

François teaches French language, conducting a series of lessons where he jousts verbally with students, having more trouble with a few and going on to involve other staff members, especially the head. Some of the students get more alienated as the year continues, some surprise us and some are swept away by personal rage or external influences. This is not that story of how an individual teacher redeems a group of no-hopers or the one about a clutch of sex addicts (whether staff or students) who happen to attend a comprehensive - the way Channel Four likes to approach drama about education.

In this classroom arena, François is not always perfect and the students not always wrong. In many scenes, if you are concentrating on the interplay, it is not easy to favour one side or the other, as some reviewers have done with the teacher.

The film shows us both the boredom and quick-wittedness of the students, and the ingenuity and powerlessness of the staff. There is a lot about language: that base on which the superstructure of French universalism and civic equality is supposed to be built. At one point, François is teaching examples of French grammar. Esmerelda, a French-Tunisian, enquires why he only uses posh names - Pierre, Marie. Why not names like those in the class, ones belonging to second-generation Algerians, Haitians and other offspring of the French empire. At another point, in the middle of a crisis, François lets fly with the wrong word, the insult pétasse (‘skank’ or ‘slut’). This being one of those mistakes of the heated moment that cannot be taken back. The students are quick to pull him up on it. You want us to respect you, one says, so why don’t you respect us?

In a major plot development, there is an open staff meeting with student reps present, both members of François’s class. He presumes that they are not listening, as they are giggling and whispering, so he gives the meeting an unflattering opinion of one of their classmates. Unfortunately, the reps had taken copious notes and report his comments to the student concerned. This sets off a chain reaction that comes close to destroying him.

One of the funniest moments, though, comes at another staff meeting. What has to be the school accountant explains why the teachers cannot simply get a kettle for the staff room. Though the price of coffee from the school’s coffee machine has gone up, the staff must continue to use it because the machine still has to be paid for. The authentic voice of ‘economic rationality’ there, highly suitable for this time of sacrifice after the credit crunch.

Subtly throughout, we are shown that the students are all good at something. In the process, however, we are reminded that it is not good enough to be good at something: you either have to be superlatively good (as in football) or born to the right kind of parents. This latter point is emphasised when a Chinese boy called Wei, whom everyone agrees is gifted academically, finds that his mother has ‘overstayed’. Though she has lived in France for three years, she cannot avoid deportation back to China. In the next scene, he is absent.

Like the recent critical and popular hits of TV, The wire and Mad men, and the comedy Extras, the film concentrates on the difficulties and relationships of work, not love or adventure. It does not give us the tale of a saint saving the kids or a generation who can only chat about make-up and rap. Instead, it focuses on what a ‘sink’ school is like - a pen for keeping off the streets people who are surplus to the market until they can go to a dead-end job, on the dole or into prison. And, what is more, these students know it (as do some of the teachers).

This film does not quite stretch to portraying the working class characters as agents, politically challenging or using collective action. The youth certainly exhibit ‘resistance’, as some theorists would call it, but in a meagre, reactive or self-hating way. That other kind of cinema - what one might call oppositional or alternative, whether English or French-speaking - is the exception, like Ken Loach’s Spanish civil war masterpiece Land and freedom or indeed the aforementioned La haine.

In my day, there was at least one high school that came out on strike twice. The action taken involved swots, yobs and a future reviewer for the Weekly Worker. However, that was in the 70s and another story.

In his comprehensive book the Genius of Shakespeare Jonathan Bate discusses the ancient criteria for judging a work of art, as applicable to this film as to a play: Is it true? Is it moving? Is it thought-provoking? Yes.