Which is not to say that Cantet has made a documentary or that he’s let improvisation run wild. Far from it, for at heart this is a scripted drama filmed with subtle artistry that may invoke the energy of the fly-on-the-wall doc but is no slave to that look. Within the film run the arteries of true, honest and lively collaboration, not least because its lead actor, playing the teacher, is 37-year-old François Bégaudeau, once a ‘prof’ himself, who turned his novel, ‘Entre les Murs’, based on his teaching experiences, into a screenplay with Cantet and writer Robin Campillo. They recruited Parisian schoolkids and, on the back of workshops, filmed the drama within the grounds of a real school – mostly within the four walls of a classroom.
There’s an anarchic feel to the film as we are immersed in lessons, see snippets from staffroom life and dive headfirst into class projects. But, slyly, a composite portrait emerges, one that starts to take root when we meet some of the kids’ mums and dads during a parents’ evening and are asked to think about the pupils’ backgrounds and the baggage they bring to the classroom.
The performances are fresh and alive, the source material impeccable, but language is the film’s motor. ‘No one says that,’ complains brassy Esmerelda when being taught the subjunctive. In this arena, language can offend at the drop of a report card. It also reveals so much. The pupils are ‘wild animals’ complains a teacher at the end of his tether in the staff room, an accusation that shocks us, while Souleymane, a kid from Mali, reacts nervously to the request that they write self-portraits: ‘I don’t talk about myself,’ he says, initiating a moving scene in which the teacher extracts photos from him instead. It’s later, when François flippantly directs the word pétasse, which can mean ‘whore’, at a pupil that his harsh words in an earlier meeting with class reps return to haunt him.
Silence, too, has an enlightening role: at the end of the film, a kid whom we’ve barely noticed comes forward to François, her head hanging, and claims that she’s learnt nothing all year. It’s a desperately sad moment that gets to the core of the film’s very human message: no person or enterprise is perfect. François is a good teacher, but he can screw up. Good pupils do bad things and vice versa. Cantet is never more judgemental than this. He’s a realist on two levels: cinema and life.
It’s a film that’s good on exploring, undermining and confirming first impressions. At the start of the film, a teacher runs through a list of pupils with a colleague, defining them as ‘nice’ or ‘not nice’ or, in one case, ‘not nice at all’. It’s our pleasure, and Cantet’s reward, that by the time the film ends on a shot of an empty classroom we’d struggle to apply such simple labels to anyone we’ve met. The film deserves all the praise sent its way since Sean Penn’s jury gave it the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year.