Laurent Cantet’s French language feature The Class (Entre Les Murs) won the Palme d'Or, the top prize, at the Cannes Film Festival in the Summer.
The film, is based on teacher François Bégaudeau’s 2006 novel about his experiences, and stars the author himself as a maverick French-language teacher, François Marin, at a junior high school in a tough Paris neighbourhood.
Palme D'Or winners typically have a strong socio-political commentary, although treatments vary widely from Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) with its entertaining invective to the aching, angsty, existentialism of the Dardenne Brothers, two-time winners with Rosetta (1999) and L'enfant (2005).
The Class falls more into the latter category, but has a straightforward, lighter touch than the moody works of the Belgian auteurs. Considering the potential for tragedy and strife in its study of a class of thirteen to fifteen year olds from deprived, multicultural Paris, it's surprisingly lively with its verbal sparring matches between the teacher and his troublesome pupils.
All the action takes place within the school and most of that in the classroom itself. Although it's a fictional piece there's a documentary realism to it - think handheld, fly-on-the-wall shots and a flood of dialogue. You would be forgiven for thinking, initially, you are following a slick TV crew on an assignment rather than a work of fiction.
Instead of a straightforward script, students improvised dialogue. Three high definition cameras captured the action. You'd never guess from the quality of the performances that the 24 teen actors were drawn from a tiny pool of 50 students from inner-city Parisian schools.
The narrative structure is necessarily loose – a teacher arrives and starts teaching – but it draws you in and then hooks you with a dramatic plot twist towards the end.
Francois pushes, goads, encourages, and teases his students and allows them to dish it back. Most of the time this works. Even his most difficult students, like the surly Malian Souleymane, start responding to his approach. So long as he can maintain the delicate balancing act of disciplined decorousness with free-flowing interaction he appears to get results, stimulating discussion and interaction. But it's never easy. As external strains begin to take their toll, his methods are questioned in the staff common room and he crosses a line which undermines his authority with his students. Unlike some more gooey films of this genre, the story remains credible to the end, but it is the subtle changes in the way power is wielded between the four walls that makes this such an interesting film