‘Entre les murs’

A class act in communication


Times may have changed, but a few things remain stolidly the same — and one of them is the middle- school classroom. Whatever else is happening out there, the classroom continues to pack a bunch of teenagers into a confined space, prop a teacher at the head of the room, and shut the door hoping for universal discipline, academic fulfillment and all-round happiness — probably in that order. Pretty nice, if only it worked that way.

“Entre les murs” (the Japanese release title is: “Paris 20 Ku Bokutachino Kurasu”) is a story immersed in the classroom’s inherent optimism, staunch in the belief that in spite of adolescent hormonal upheaval clashing with educational bureaucracy to the tune of communication failure, the classroom is still a good place to be. At the very least, you’ll learn something.

Directed by France’s Laurent Cantet, “Entre les murs” (meaning “between walls”) has the combustive energy and spirited friskiness of an inspired documentary, but in fact it’s a work of fiction. The genius of the film translates to the genius of the characters — none of whom are professional actors, all of them connected to the inner-city school in Paris where the story unfolds. The protagonist Francois (Francois Begeaudeau) teaches French to a diverse group of 14 and 15 year olds, a motley crew of immigrant kids from ethnic neighborhoods.

Entre les murs
Director Laurent Cantet
Run Time 128 minutes
Language French

For many, French is a second language, and it’s a burden to learn. Since at home they speak a different language with their families, what’s the point?

Francois is earnest, but he’s also a cool guy; he understands that good intentions and sincerity are just not enough to win over the hodgepodge of nationalities and cultures that make up his class.

When one of the students pipes up to ask if he’s a homosexual, Francois knows enough to smile and adroitly turn the question into a language lesson.

For all his outer shell of quiet calm, Francois is fueled by a willingness to work hard and closely with the students; something that not all the teachers in the school admit to having. Francois himself has his off days, but he still braces himself in the morning to do a good job, and renews that pledge every day. American cinema likes to paint the inner-city classroom as an urban microcosm replete with the rather cliched problems of urban living (“Dangerous Minds,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus” etc.), all of which can be remedied by a charismatic teacher. There’s a nugget of truth in that approach but “Entre les murs” delves a lot deeper and isn’t afraid to ask questions for which there are no immediate answers. Francois’ zeal, for example, is less defined by a wish to influence his students, than a real love for the French language. “Without it, we’re lost,” he stresses to his class, “If we master it, we’re on the way to becoming masters of our lives.”

More often than not, the students (all of whom attended a yearlong workshop with Cantet to play skewed and altered versions of their real, more docile selves) get back at him with saucy chit-chat, pointing out that no one in Paris talks like Francois (“it sounds medieval!” chortles a girl) and that language skills are meaningless anyway.

For all their apparent indifference, the students talk and talk, even when some insist that “there’s nothing to talk about because nothing’s happening in my life.”

Francois rallies to the verbal challenge and the classroom air is dense with dialogue and difficult words that the students initially reject as “too long and old-fashioned,” but eventually allow to become part of their daily vocabulary. At one point, Francois cracks under sheer pressure, the students rebel and the walls of his microcosm reverberate in its own chaos. But in their blackest moments, teacher and students never recede into silence.

Francois sums it all up by saying: “Words are both a gift and a tool by which we negotiate our way through life and the classroom.”