23 August, 2008

Entre les murs (2008)

Learning curve

The clear favourite to take the top prize at Cannes (and it duly lived up to expectations, scooping the Palme D'Or), Laurent Cantet's seminal study of 'the blackboard jungle' (which fully deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Richard's Brooks 1955 work, Robert Mulligan's Up the Down Staircase (1967) and James Clavell's To Sir, With Love (1967)) features former teacher François Bégaudeau (who also wrote the screenplay from his own autobiography) as himself during a school year spent with a class of 14-year-olds, trying to impart lessons in French and life.

The mixed ethnicity of the neighbourhood where the school is located (the 20th arrondissement, home to immigrants since the 19th century and which also has Paris's biggest Chinatown) is well represented in the daily cultural melting pot 'between the walls' of the classroom - François must contend not only with teenage insecurities, reluctance to learn and truculence, but also with the rebelliousness, agression even, of one of his most difficult pupils, Malian troublemaker Souleymane (Franck Keïta). As a backdrop, power struggles and bickering in the staff room are also part of the daily grind - but the children must come first, right?

Cantet's hand-held, documentary style approach works very well in the environment, helped enormously by the naturalistic dialogue/argot that is the back-and-forth between teacher and pupils. Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani) and friend Khoumba (Rachel Régulier) stand out - both have a relationship with François that veers between agression, defiance and respect borne of their need to be given direction, while his own relationship with the other teachers has a verisimilitude rarely seen on film.

For this reviewer, even though French is not my native language, Cantet's greatest achievement is the conviction gained by the viewer that, in watching the day-to-day dramas, squabbles, ocassional breakthroughs and break-outs, we could be in any classroom, anywhere in the world - and also back in our own childhoods. Sensibly, while nearly all the young people portrayed are shown to be highly irritating to adult sensibilities from time to time (a teacher's lot is not a happy one, right?), no child, not even Souleymane, is cast as a 'villain', which might have been the approach adopted by a less subtle, 'mainstream' examination of teaching trials.

So, a worthy winner of Cannes' highest honour? Every year brings naysayers against the jury's decision (I was not impressed, for example, by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne winning with L'Enfant (2005)), and there is perhaps the argument that more could have been shown concerning the children's individual backgrounds, but you are unlikely to see a more riveting and affecting take on the rites of passage that are played out every day, in every school, in any language, with the last scene (an empty classroom once the kids have departed for the summer break) saying more than words.

Awards: Thus far, only the small matter of the Palme D'Or 2008.

128 mins. In French. Released across Europe from 24 September 2008 onwards.

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