Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Laurent Cantet's The Class

Martin O'Shaughnessy discusses French director Laurent Cantet's 2008 The Class (Entre les Murs).

This film is really worth taking in. Its Cannes golden palm and Oscar nomination were fully deserved. One of the most interesting things about it is how it was made: inspired by a hit novel by an ex-school teacher, François BĂ©gaudeau, its script was honed through workshops with its amateur cast of teachers, students and parents, each playing their own role. There was thus something profoundly democratic about how it was put together, a quality reinforced by the filming which typically used three high-definition digital cameras running simultaneously to record the classroom interaction through extreme long-takes. This allowed the dialogue to flow organically and signalled a desire on the part of the director to let go off the kind of control that the ‘well-made shot’ would normally require.

As always with Cantet, the film is profoundly interested in questions of power, as evidenced by the teacher’s ability to define legitimate and illegitimate language use and to set classroom norms. Beyond this, the film might be seen as a questioning of the neutrality associated with French republican citizenship and the school’s role in producing such a thing. While Brits and Americans are typically invited to bring their particularity into the public sphere, citizenship in France is based on a leaving behind of the particular. Helping young French people to rise above their religion, ethnic origin or social class, the school has a key role in forming republican citizens. Critics of this model say that one has only to scratch its surface to find the white, middle-class male lurking behind apparent neutrality and universality.

By allowing its protagonists to point to the class and ethnic biases in their teacher’s apparently neutral language use, Cantet’s film shows its awareness of these criticisms of republican citizenship. But despite this, it holds onto a sense of the school as a place where different groups can come together by transcending rather than erasing their differences.

A few years ago, in 2005, after rioting in the French suburbs, Nicolas Sarkozy called the rioters ‘la racaille’, the rabble. Providing an implicit answer to Sarkozy’s disqualification of protesting youth, this film gives its young people an equal right to be heard, recognising them as speaking subjects not as social objects. If the film seems to avoid any direct political intervention, the commitment it shows to equality before the word (both in its content and in the way it was written) underscores a political intent already brought out through its examination of power relations in the classroom.
(Picture of College Francoise Dolto by Gabyu. Permissions.)

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