Thursday, May 31, 2012

Suffer the Children

Film: Entre les Murs (The Class)
Format: DVDs from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I have watched a lot of movies in my lifetime. There are movies that I have loved, movies that I have hated, and movies that have bothered me on a deep level. But until tonight, I have never seen a movie that flat out pissed me off as much as Entre les Murs (The Class). I’ll be blunt here: I had to actively force myself to continue watching this after the first half hour, and the film runs somewhat longer than two.

I’ll make this short: the film takes place in a school in France. I’m not really sure of the level. The kids are in their middle teens, but they talk about eventually going to high school. Perhaps the French system is different. I’m not really sure. Anyway, the film tends to focus on the French teacher, Francois Marin (Francois Begaudeau). More specifically, it focuses on one specific class of his, which appears to have about 8,000 students.

While there are a lot of personalities in the room, we tend to focus on just a few of them. One, Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani) likes to talk and likes to cause a lot of trouble. Another, Souleymane (Franck Keita) refuses to do most of his classwork, rebels in all his classes, but appears to have a brain working underneath it all. We also have Khoumba (Rachel Regulier) who bristles every time she is asked to do anything in class. Francois deals with almost constant interruptions and constant chatter from everyone, and doesn’t seem to manage to get anything done.

For a bit, it appears that he might be getting through to the students. He seems to develop something of a relationship with them, and while they are frequently disruptive, at least they seem to be learning something. He has them all write self-portraits, and all of them at least attempt it except for Souleymane, who refuses. Instead, Francois allows Souleymane to create his as a set of pictures he has taken, and it seems like we’re getting somewhere.

At one point, though, a fight breaks out in the classroom and naturally, it is Souleymane who is eventually at the center. Stomping out of the room without permission, he smacks Khoumba across the face with his backpack, splitting open her eyebrow. Naturally, this leads to expulsion from the school despite the fact that this probably means that the boy will be sent back to his native Mali by his over-strict father. And then it’s the end of the year and the film ends. Esmeralda, who goes through the entire movie needing to be punched in the teeth, claims that she didn’t learn anything.

As a teacher, I know these students, or at least some of them. Seeing them depicted on a screen in front of me doesn’t do anything to improve my mood. In general, these kids are snotty, ignorant, and self-assured enough to believe that they are always correct, that their education is worthless, and that everything around them is equally worthless. They are arrogant, mouthy, disrespectful, and similarly immediately demanding of complete respect from everyone else. They act and talk with the sort of impunity that leads me to believe that in the 13 or 14 years preceding this film, these characters have never been corrected on a single thing in their lives. I know for a fact these people exist. I’ve seen them, had them in my classroom, and seen them at times when I have guest lectured. I’ve just never seen them depicted as something worth celebrating. And that, more than anything, pisses me off. Filmmaker Laurent Cantet appears to have not a single problem with the almost singular entitlement of virtually every person in this film, because except for Souleymane, nothing happens to anyone.

Beyond this, the film is remarkably disjointed. We learn at one point that a Chinese student named Wei (Wei Huang) may lose his mother to deportation because she is in the country illegally. A big to-do is made of this for about 10 minutes, then a teacher announces that she is pregnant. Neither of these topics or plot threads or whatever else you want to call them shows up again. It’s like they never happened.

I might well apologize for the fact that this review has been written with a sort of white-hot anger. I might well apologize for the fact that this movie struck a chord with me because it seems to glorify the sort of behavior that every school and every teacher finds obstructive and that kills any sort of real learning environment. I won’t apologize, though, for hating this film with the burning fire of a thousand suns. Glad it’s done, and never again.

Why to watch Entre les Murs: You find you need a better reason to show respect for teachers.
Why not to watch: Because people suck, and kids more than most.


  1. Nice rant/review! I agree that most of the kids needed a swift backhanding, but you should be grateful that anyone watching this now has a deeper understanding for how much teachers have to go through every year. I'd never really thought about how unbearably frustrating it could be for the people trying to teach those who refuse to be taught, and now I have some insight into that, and respect teachers and the job that they do so much more now.

    It does heavily underline that most people suck though.

    1. What worries me is that many people watching this will, as often happens, blame the teacher because the class is out of control. Just more evidence that people suck.

    2. I wouldn't worry about that. I saw the movie when I was studying abroad in the south of France and I took it more as a political commentary about how awful it is in the Parisian ghettos. Paris literally has some of the worst areas surrounding it and this gives firsthand insight into how these children are raised to behave. Otherwise I feel like they wouldn't mention so much about the parents. I didn't take it to be about horrible teaching, I thought it was about horrible human conditions and bad parenting as a result of poverty.

    3. It's how I took in in a large respect, too. That doesn't, however, prevent some of the more...reactionary...members of society from pointing the finger at the "glorified babysitters" behind the teacher's desk.

  2. I watched it this morning and I really didn't walk away with the idea that bad behavior was being celebrated, merely depicted.

    So from that perspective, I liked it well enough, especially considering my wariness of French Cinema in general.

    And I wasn't the least bit surprised that Souleymane was wearing a Detroit Pistons jersey in one scene.

    1. I stand by my earlier comments. I think that this can be read as at least justifying the behavior of the students, and I think that's potentially a huge problem.

      I won't watch this one again.