The first French film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes since 1987, this raw tale of a school year in Paris’ inner city pulls no punches. Francois Begaudeau penned the novel, the screenplay and played “himself” as the teacher, under the direction of Laurent Cantet.
Filmed with real students, not actors, it exposes with frankness the day-to-day challenges, and successes, of life within the walls. It also managed to show a wider view of Paris that enamored foreigners rarely see — racial division, Muslim populations, and formerly colonized African descendants all in the same room. Kids will be kids, but these kids have it tough and are fighting tooth and nail to be heard over the din of street violence, iPods and aggressive parents.
Lengthy scenes add to the realistic feel, letting the audience feel like it is sitting in on class. Interjections and giggling seem spontaneous. Interruptions remind us how hard it is for the teacher to keep things on a single track. What makes this teacher so endearing is his willingness to let them drive the direction. He winds up their curiosity and lets them go, almost so they won’t know that they are learning.
There is much to glean from the few scenes with administration as well. Their callousness toward the students we have spent class with is cold and shortsighted. We feel the urge to yell at the screen, “But you weren’t there! You don’t understand! If you would just listen!”
Somehow, the story comes full circle. It’s neither happy nor sad. It’s Sisyphus. Another school year is over. People move on. He’ll have a new class next year. And maybe these kids will be the ones to get something out of it.
Certainly he will.