If you’re Christmas shopping for your favorite film critic, give him three good films from a single country and let him declare a “New Wave.’ There is nothing a film critic likes to do more.
Yet the recent proliferation of supposed New Waves obscures one fact – the majority of classic films have come from two nations, the U.S. and France. While Italy and England and Japan pitch in, these two nations consistently produce the greatest share of excellence. They also seem to trade decades. When Hollywood was down in the early 1960s, the French New Wave filled the gap.
The American indie shaped the nineties, it was a down period for French film. In most eyes the dark ages have ended and French film is once again shining. This resurgence was consecrated this year by the selection of the schoolroom faux-doc Entre Les Murs for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Root, root, root for the home team – it was the first French victory in more than two decades. In film years, that’s almost as long as the French army’s last victory—under Joan of Arc.
Portraying a (school) year in the life of a middle school in a tough Parisian immigrant neighborhood, Laurent Cantet’s feature isn’t a documentary. But it looks like one. And it feels like one. The students are real students, chosen from volunteers at an actual Parisian school. Francois Marin (the teacher) is played by Francois Begaudeau, a longtime educator who wrote the screenplay and the namesake memoir on which it is based. The Socratian teaching methods that he demonstrates are the same that he used as a teacher. The situations often are based on real events.
This is perhaps as close as one can come to real life and remain technically fictional. For verisimilitude junkies, it’s hard to get a more powerful hit. Entre Les Murs literally means “Between the Walls” (although in English countries, it is going by the title The Class). We join Francois briefly at a coffee shop on the first day of school. Thirty seconds later, he and we enter the school doors. The camera never leaves. All drama is generated within the school grounds by its residents, and the resolutions take place there, as well. We’re conditioned to the Stand and Deliver tropes of the high school film.
This one only occasionally succumbs to those rules. It finds drama in what one might think are mundane details of school life – staff meetings, parent conferences, philosophical disagreements. Most of all, the drama comes from the interaction in the classroom, from the give-and-take between the teacher and twenty curious minds. Only towards the end does the film take on a traditional schoolhouse dramatic conflict, the disciplining of the school’s biggest miscreant. Yet the final showdown erupts not from drugs or guns or gangs, but from an overreaction to a teacher’s moment of weakness.
Even the deserved discipline presents unexpected moral questions for the teaching staff. With its methodical commitment to getting things right, the film captures the routine joys and frustrations of teaching. It presents both the classroom and the emerging multicultural French society as organic entities. It gives us the most realistic, least sentimental sense of the true profession that we’re likely to find onscreen.