We review a 2008 classic movie in Part 5 of our series about teachers in famous films.
For the 5th part of our series about teachers in movies, I wanted to explore another French film, the 2008 film “Entre les murs” / “The Class”. It is not as famous as “Les Choristes” but it received the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and its touching and thought-provoking take on education and French society has been acclaimed by critics.
The film is loosely based on the 2006 novel of the same name by François Bégaudeau, which includes autobiographical elements and describes the life of a French language and literature teacher in an inner Paris school (a “collège”, the equivalent of a mixed comprehensive school in the UK).
The title — both in French and in its English translation — reflects the perspective adopted in the film: everything happens “between the walls” (the literal translation of “entre les murs”) of the school and the classroom, and we follow the life of teachers and students from the beginning to the end of a school year.
It often comes across as a docu-drama: some classroom scenes are improvised and others are based on real-life incidents, so it has a very authentic feel overall. This is also emphasised by the fact that the teacher in the film, François Marin, is played by the author of the novel, François Bégaudeau, so the boundary between fact and fiction tends to blend. However, the film is fiction, and all the students are actors.
The film raises many questions that have to do with teaching but also with the school system and how it brings to the fore social issues such as immigration, racism and antisemitism. François is a caring and passionate teacher, but we see him struggling to maintain his authority and to keep the group of 25 teenagers he teaches every day interested in French language and literature.
One of the first scenes of the film sets the tone and highlights the tension in the classroom: as the students work on the imperfect tense in French, one question from a student leads François to talk about the imperfect subjunctive (for the linguists among you, in the sentence, “il fallait que je fusse” / “I had to be”, “fusse” is the imperfect subjunctive form of the verb “être”).
This is quite rarely used in French and sounds a bit old-fashioned, but François wants his students to be able to recognise the form and understand how the language works. He is ridiculed by the class, as students claim this would only be used “in the Middle Ages”, and that they would never think of using this phrase when talking to their friends or family.
In spite of this, François insists on the importance of them understanding the imperfect subjunctive — and I think this passage actually reflects one of the central ideas of the film: education gives you a choice.
Teaching is of course about learning things of immediate relevance to you: additions and subtractions to be able to manage your own earnings and spending, accurate spelling and grammar to write professional emails, etc. However, education is not just about learning the very basics to get through life, but also about opening up horizons and giving you opportunities.
You may not need to use the French imperfect subjunctive every day, but being able to recognise it and potentially use it means you are better equipped when tackling unseen texts or when confronted with formal French. As a consequence, education becomes a way to address the limits of inclusivity in contemporary French society.
I do not want to spoil any of the later developments, but will only say that the film doesn’t offer any easy solution or happy end. Its authenticity means that it also sheds light on the tensions that arise, the mistakes that are made, and all the areas that need to be improved. However, I would warmly recommend it to teachers, students and parents alike, both in France and in the UK, as I believe the questions it raises are relevant to all of us.
Liked this? You may also enjoy the previous post in the series (about another French movie), Teachers In Talkies — Les Choristes.
Remember that watching films in foreign languages is a great way to improve your language skills, as we discuss in Netflix your way to Language Mastery!
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Adeline runs our Admin Team. With a PhD in English, she can call herself a doctor but can’t write prescriptions!
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