This Classroom Doesn't Love a Wall
The newly released Entre les murs (U.S. title: The Class), directed by Laurent Cantet, provides a hugely entertaining and enlightening portrait of a middle-school teacher sparring with his pupils—usually verbally—in a classroom in Paris's 20th arrondissement, on the easternmost edge of the city. The film is doubly abstracted from the real-life experiences of François Bégaudeau, a writer and former school teacher in a tough Parisian neighborhood. Bégaudeau’s autobiographical novel Entre les murs ("Between the Walls") furnished the characters and narrative for the filmscript, and it is Bégaudeau himself who completes the circle by playing the lead role of the teacher, "François Marin." (Most of the actors transpose their real first names onto their screen names.)
The SSRC's Migration Program has asked me to review the film in light of work I've done on immigration and on France's educational system. A couple of years ago, I wrote the book Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space, providing an anthropological perspective on the French government's 2004 decision to ban Islamic headscarves and other religious signs from public schools. More recently, I contributed a chapter to the SSRC-sponsored book Just Schools (Russell Sage, 2008), looking at why France's educational system has proved so resistant to multiculturalism despite substantial Muslim and African immigration. In that chapter, I highlight two features of French schools. First, because they are trained to teach the same way to everyone, teachers find it difficult to take account of ethnic and religious diversity. Secondly, because the school system is based on hierarchy and channeling, pupils of immigrant background rarely have the cultural competence and economic resources to navigate their way to the more prestigious and well-paying high schools and universities. I will return to these themes below, but first I will ask what the film tells about schooling and society in France today.
Young, white, trimly athletic (the real-life François is an excellent soccer player), François Marin encounters a class that reflects the city's ethnic diversity, his students hailing largely from Europe, China, and northern and western Africa. (The lines of cleavage between "Maghrebin" and "black" Africa surge to the surface during a debate on the approaching African Cup soccer tournament.) He jabs and parries with them to draw them out of themselves and into discussion with him—although these discussions rarely have to do with what is supposed to be the lesson of the day—namely, learning the finer points of the French language.
French commentators agree that the film captures the nuances of how real pupils behave: how they gesture, sit on the edge of their chairs, and speak—or refuse to speak. The portraits of the students are complex. The best-performing girl also acts irresponsibly; the most disruptive boy shows streaks of artistic inspiration.
That things ring true is due to Cantet’s approach: the students, as well as the administrators and the other teachers, are all played by nonprofessional actors who were chosen from a in the 20th arrondissement. Cantet helped them to hone their acting skills through weeks of workshops. He also encouraged them to put things in their own words.
Although both the book and the film are classified as fiction, neither was so clearly seen that way in France. In fact, when Bégaudeau’s book first appeared in 2006, it sat alongside other books of an increasingly populated genre: "tales of a young schoolteacher in a difficult neighborhood." Such books sell because the depictions are detached, humorous, and generally negative—in keeping with widespread French perceptions of their national educational system. Most people in France are troubled by the state of their public schools, and the popular weeklies rarely let too much time go by without an exposé on declining educational standards.
The film, too, though technically fiction, was closely scrutinized by most viewers for how well it depicted these realities. Its attraction has been the glimpse it provides into something nearly everyone has experienced—a classroom—but that increasingly seems alien and disturbing. This fascination may account for why it took this year's top prize at Cannes, the first French film to do since 1987.
How well has the film played among middle-school teachers in France? Overall, their response has been mixed. Many resent the movie’s generally negative portrayal of the secondary schools, even while acknowledging the film’s attention to detail. "He never teaches," as one teacher put it. But what appears to irritate France's teaching establishment even more is the attitude of ambivalence François shows for his students. Indeed, "François Marin" remains an enigma throughout the film, showing both compassion for and antagonism towards his students, the latter often verging on cruelty.
We see him, for instance, showing considerably more sympathy towards the rebellious and "insolent" Souleymane (Franck Keïta) than do other teachers at the school. When he assigns his students to write a self-portrait, Souleymane uses photography as part of his essay. François praises him for this and also helps him add words to serve as captions, just enough to pass the requirement. When, later on, Souleymane’s behavior leads the school head to begin the disciplinary proceedings that will ultimately lead to expulsion, François pleads for another chance, fearing the boy would be sent back to Mali by his father upon expulsion.
But François also baits the students, teasing and sometimes humiliating them. At times these gestures might seem like pedagogical tools—challenges to which he hopes the pupils will rise, as when he repeatedly tells them he would find it astounding if they knew the answer to the question just posed. But, more often than not, the provocations are gratuitous expressions of disdain. When Khoumba (Rachel Regulier), who thinks François has it in for her, is writing her self-portrait on the computer, she asks him how to spell "Lafayette"—as in Galeries Lafayette, the oldest Paris department store along the fashionable Grands Boulevards. François makes clear his stupefaction that she would venture that far out of her neighborhood: "But that’s four subway stops away!" And when Khoumba responds that she also goes "to Luxembourg," he reverts to his pedantic worst: "You go to the country of Luxembourg?", he inquires, eyebrows raised in mock surprise, when she fails to say, in a precise way, that she goes to the neighborhood near the Luxembourg train stop.
This pedagogical "missing the forest for the trees" kicks off the sequence of events that dominates the film’s second half: François, irritated at damaging leaks from sessions of the school council, insults the two girls who sit on that council, saying they behaved like pétasses—a term that for them means prostitute but for François, living in a slightly different speech world, means a vulgar young woman. When they roar back in anger, he begins correcting the pupils’ use of French. In the midst of all this, Sulaymane learns from the two girls that François had declared him "limited" in his abilities at a council session. Visibly deflated, he joins in the attacks on François and—for the second time in the film—commits the nearly unpardonable offense of slipping from "vous" into "tu." Things escalate, and he storms out of the classroom, wounding Khoumba with his bag on the way. The necessary reports are filed, and Sulaymane is tossed out of school. François knows that the cascade of events started with his own over-the-top insult, but he cannot bring himself to admit his error until the girls’ complaints about his language reach the school head.
Although critics have generally focused on the real-life quality of the acting, they have had less to say about how the film pinpoints some of the sources of anxiety that the French have regarding schools. Let me discuss two interrelated features of schooling that appear here: hierarchy and language.
Most viewers would agree that the film’s most poignant moment occurs just at the end, when class is over for the year, and a quiet girl approaches François to admit that she has learned nothing. Reviewers have focused on the dramatic impact of the girl's confession, but they fail to note her gnawing fear that as a consequence she will be sent, or "oriented," to a vocational high school. One might think that such a direction would provide the best future for an under-performing pupil, but the girl’s concern reminds us of the terror that France’s hyper-hierarchy can inspire in those who don’t quite make it to the top.
Hierarchy pervades France—amateur tennis players are ranked, along with resorts, hospitals, and restaurants. But the hierarchy that pervades the nation's educational system, with its mechanisms of gatekeeping and evaluation, breeds nothing short of contempt and terror for anything viewed as second best.
Napoleon created the lycée to form an elite civil service corps, and the competitive exams assured that only a small number of highly trained pupils would enter these schools and even fewer would graduate. Moreover, the few who made it out of the lycée went not to universities but to the higher postsecondary schools, the grandes écoles, which trained young men to become engineers, accountants, or full-service bureaucrats.
Little has changed since then, except that the gatekeeping exists at even more levels: in the middle-school system of "orientation," in the tracks within lycées, and especially in the preparatory classes that intervene between high school and entry to the grandes écoles (enrollment in such classes is increasingly confined to those with the requisite social and economic capital). The universities remain open to all and nearly free; as a result, many students enter without the preparation to succeeed, and large numbers drop out shortly after entering. Only about one-half of those who begin university ever finish their first degree. Pupils believe that the vocational track "is for morons," as one pupil told a French sociologist, while the track leading to post-secondary school is "normal." Normal, then, that most pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds would see themselves as having been branded as "failures" by their schools.
The control of language plays a key role in educational hierarchy. It is perhaps not accidental that many of the authors of France’s "confessions of a young schoolteacher" books lament their pupils’ inability to master correct French—laments that often get picked up in the popular media—and that the authors typically are teachers of French in schools where most pupils commonly speak the argot of their generation.
Entre les murs highlights the uneven language competencies of the junior high students that François encounters. It shows him drawing on his superior speaking ability to beat them at their own verbal game—but then reaching the point where his students find him "abusive," as the young Arab student, Esméralda (Esméralda Ouertani), repeatedly says.
Even when we see François at his pedagogical best, language arises as a wall between him and those like him, on the one hand, and his pupils, on the other. One of the few "teaching moments” in the film concerns the use of the subjunctive imperfect. The pupils argue that no one speaks that way—that it is the "language of the Middle Ages." They challenge him to say when he last heard anyone use that tense. When François responds "yesterday," they reply: "No, someone normal." He is caught unawares and backtracks by admitting it is somewhat "pretentious" people who speak that way. His gestures at that moment strike the pupils as being those of "a homosexual"—a claim that returns us to an earlier moment, when Suleymane had noted that "people are saying" François likes men. In the street, you speak pretentiously at your own risk.
Entre les murs also reminds us that parents of these students are often unable to negotiate the language and rules of the French school. We see some of the parents appear for parent-teacher conferences. Some must depend on their children to act as translators. Perhaps the most dignified performance in the film is by Souleymane’s mother, when she is summoned with her son to attend the school disciplinary hearing. She sits, uncomprehending, as her son listens to the announcement of his expulsion, stands up, thanks the teachers, and leaves.
Anyone who sees The Class should also see Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2004 film L’Esquive (U.S. title: Games of Love and Chance), which tells a story about another group of junior high students in France. They attend a school in the reputedly even more difficult Parisian suburb of La Courneuve. Like Cantet's work, L’Esquive has language as a central theme, yet Kechiche manages to highlight the adroit qualities of these new French citizens by portraying their mastery of two registers: the classic French of the playwright Marivaux, one of whose pieces they are practicing in French class, and the up-to-date street slang of the poor suburbs. (The film offers subtitles for the latter, as an aid to those whose French is narrowly confined to bourgeois neighborhoods.)
In Entre les murs, by contrast, creativity consists of François’s ability to run spoken roughshod over his class and of his students’ own mastery of more variegated speech worlds than he is capable of navigating. At the film's end, Sandra says she learned nothing in school, but that she loved Plato’s Republic, which she read at home, and of which she delivers a passable summary: "And that’s not the book of a pétasse!"
John Bowen is the Dunbar-Van Cleve professor in arts & sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and a close associate of several SSRC programs.