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Culture

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La constante et périlleuse joute entre un prof et ses élèves

by Dominique Widemann

Cannes 2008 Golden Palm: The Constant and Perilous Joust between a Teacher and his Class

Translated Saturday 31 May 2008, by Isabelle Métral

Cannes Festival’s 61st edition:
Remarkable, dazzling, exhilarating … Superlative praise greets "Entre les Murs" (In the Classroom) where Laurent Cantet gives ... a master-class!

Because he is not numbered with the Cannes festival’s honoured celebrities, we’d be delighted to give Laurent Cantet the highest award granted in our Republic’s schools, namely le prix d’excellence [1]. And the same prize would go to François Bégaudeau too, a French teacher, author of the book that inspired the filmmaker, who acts his own part in Cantet’s remarkable film. The man gets up every morning to go to work; he teaches at the collège Françoise Dolto, a comprehensive school in the 20th arrondissement in Paris.

Laurent Cantet follows this man’s first steps along the school corridors, to the staff room where the teachers soberly introduce themselves one after another. This is the first day of the new school year. The director succeeds in riveting our attention after only a few sequences by probing deep into the world where the action is about to unfold, exactly as he did in his former film Ressources humaines (Human Resources), in which he started by showing the factory workshop by way of introducing the film.

The same humanity is perceptible here as the camera focuses on each of the characters and shows more than their simple features. Laurent Cantet captures the very stuff of daily life in its simplest setting. While keeping close to reality, he actually builds up what proves to be a rich construction, a form for the realities that usually escape our notice: the manifest freedom in the choice of the framing, rhythm, and direction results in the creation of a specific cinematographic language, just as the French teacher himself must devise one in his relation with his class. For everything here revolves around language, and people’s command of language, or the flaws in their use of it.

The youngsters are introduced each in their turn when they have something to say before the class. Esmeralda, Louise, Souleymane, Cherif, Wei, Justine, Khumba, Henriette ou Rabah, all of whom are on the school’s rolls, play their parts here as real actors. For several months, they have learned under the director’s guidance how to evade the pitfall of stereotypes. We remain confined in the classroom with them except for a spell in a small courtyard or in the canteen - for the classroom is the place where everything crystallizes. There we willingly submit to the rule of extemporaneous ingenuity.

These teenagers’ ages range from 13 to 15. Their dress and movements, the colour of each face, the words that burst forth or fail them, the social diversity they so visibly manifest, none of this is made to sustain crude categorization.

A constant joust is taking place between the teacher and his class. And a perilous one it is. Every time the teacher proposes a theme - even as one throws a ball - there is absolutely no certainty that it will rebound. The few lines of a tercet or the subjunctive imperfect may well skid out of the ruled page into the chaotic space of the margin - and there the meaning blows up!

In an attempt to bring in some order, the teacher takes the young speakers at their words, rebounds on their literal meanings, shifts his ground, uses every bit of string as he would a lasso to catch a phrase, to question and track it into its furthest reaches. He uses cunning, resorts to irony as you would rub handfuls of nettles to whip up the blood. In the verbal volleying, and in the situations that ensue, the girls and boys are not outdone by the master. Sudden flashes and vacillations follow close upon one another in a manner suggestive of some ring-style choreography.

At each instant, one feels that the participants are on slippery ground; the air vibrates with the tensions; the inevitable limits soon loom into sight and the most promising flight then dashes against their sudden inspiration.

We do not find here the least demonstration of exemplary pedagogy, nor the faintest practical illustration of some psycho-sociological treaty - in short, not the least trace of condescension. What we find is the sheer vital energy out of which individuals are moulded. As in Renoir’s films, they prove neither good nor bad. And because this is the director’s guiding principle, the dividing lines constantly change place; the unexpected takes us by suprise and teases thought. Within this classroom, ignorance can recede, failure can gain ground.

All in all, the lesson we take home is that language, and the command of language, are vitally important. We realize how words are the key to understanding, to expressing one’s thoughts, to gaining access to a common language, so that each person can exist individually. The importance of this is all the more crucial as many of these youngsters are not native French speakers. We see how the whole group can be put at risk when, at this particular stage in a young person’s life, emotions can sour for not being put into words.

The film’s script follows a narrative thread that often runs underground, while the situations that are more conspicuously brought about give way to creative improvisation that may influence the very outline of the plot. And so, from being merely sketched, each character comes to life, while today’s society is genuinely revealed in a language that steers clear of stereotypes.

Translator’s note :

[1] This review was probably written before the award winners’ list was made public


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