Back to School, Mes Elèves! Mais Où Est Michelle Pfeiffer?

The Class (Entre Les Murs)
128 minutes
Written by François Bégaudeau
Directed by Laurent Cantet
Starring François Bégaudeau, Franck Keita, Esmeralda Ouertani

Laurent Cantet’s The Class (Entre les Murs), from a screenplay by François Bégaudeau (in French with English subtitles), based on his book, is the opening-night film of the 46th New York Film Festival, an honor it richly deserves. Indeed, The Class ranks among the best classroom movies I have ever seen, and these include Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel) and Alf Sjoberg’s Torment (Hets), from a screenplay by Ingmar Bergman. I mention these classic clashes between youth and authority because in a much subtler and more nuanced way, The Class is disturbingly contemporary in its reflection of a spreading anti-intellectualism among the youth around the world, and not just among the youth. Just look at and listen to the McCain-Palin diatribes against Barack Obama’s alleged “elitism” simply because he speaks well and doesn’t proudly mispronounce words in the George Bush neo-populist manner.

Mr. Bégaudeau, who wrote of his own experiences teaching French in a Paris junior high school, plays himself brilliantly as a would-be innovative educator of a mixed assemblage of acting amateur teenagers from a mélange of races, classes and ethnicities. François tries patiently to overcome the innumerable, often ingenious obstacles his charges place in his path through their jealously and zealously guarded privacy and self-esteem. François himself is not immune to losing his cool when he is driven to the edge of total exasperation. This film is thereby recommended especially for people ideologically inclined to belittle and despise the teaching profession for failing to transform willfully and impenetrably ignorant kids into Rhodes scholars. Still, The Class studiously avoids many of the clichés of the genre. An example here is the failure of the students’ tattletale tactics with their teacher’s superiors in an attempt to place his job in jeopardy.

By the same token, the bulk of the class never unites against the few egregiously bad apples in the barrel. Mr. Bégaudeau is too aware of the unspoken solidarity of the young against their elders to indulge in the sentimentality of facile conversion, a staple of most American movies. Nor are the parents made to be the villains in the worst problem cases. In fact, the film’s compassionate parent-teacher sessions are alone worth the price of admission.

There are no dramatic turning points in one teacher’s unending struggle to shed even a little light on the bleak darkness of ignorance. Still, there are flashes of humor in the repartee exchanged between an unusually witty teacher and his ever skeptical and suspicious audience. Yet the students are never caricatured even when they are most malicious and malignant in their words and actions.

One interesting sidelight to the goings-on in the classroom is the fierce hostility that rages between the African immigrants from different countries over their respective national sports teams. One is reminded of George Orwell’s writing on the evils of international sports competitions that are supposedly intended to promote peace and goodwill, but that almost always leave ill-feelings in their wake. In this vein, it can be argued that the 1936 Berlin Olympics helped bring on World War II. One can only hope that the next Olympics Games do not bring on World War III.

In any event, Mr. Cantet has reached the crest of his career after such previous triumphs of stylistic artistry and socio-economic pungency as Human Resources (1999) and Time Out (2001). So place The Class on your must-see list and keep it there until you do.

asarris@observer.com

Back to School, Mes Elèves! Mais Où Est Michelle Pfeiffer?