Latest Palme winner a class act


Scene from The Class

Opening this month, Laurent Cantet’s French language feature The Class (Entre Les Murs) won the Palme d’Or, the top prize, at the Cannes Film Festival this past summer. The film is based on teacher François Bégaudeau’s 2006 novel about his experiences at a junior high school in a tough Paris neighbourhood and stars the author himself as maverick French-language teacher François Marin.

Palme d’Or winners typically have a strong socio-political commentary, although treatments vary widely, including Michael Moore’s documentaryFahrenheit 9/11 (2004) with its entertaining invective and the aching, angst-ridden existentialism of the Dardenne brothers, two-time winners withRosetta (1999) and L’Enfant (2005).

While The Class falls more into the latter category, it has a straightforward, lighter touch than other moody works of the Belgian auteurs. Considering the potential for tragedy and strife in its study of a class of 13-15-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 mostly within 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 initially thinking that you are following a slick TV crew on an assignment rather than watching a work of fiction.

The film was loosely scripted, with students improvising dialogue. Three high-definition cameras captured the action and 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. François pushes, goads, encourages and teases his students and allows them to dish it back. This works most of the time and even his most difficult students, like the surly Malian Souleymane, start responding to his approach. As 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 and as external strains begin to take their toll, his methods are questioned in the staff common room. Ultimately, he crosses a line that 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.

Also out this month is Steven Soderbergh’s two-part biopic Che (30), starring Benicio del Toro as iconic Ernesto “Che” Guevara. In part one, The Argentine, he sets sail for Cuba in 1956 with Fidel Castro and 80 rebels to overthrow the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The film follows Che’s rise from doctor to commander to revolutionary hero.

Part 2, Guerilla, starts at the height of Che’s fame following the Cuban Revolution. He emerges incognito in Bolivia leading a small group of Cuban comrades and Bolivian recruits in the great Latin American Revolution. However, for all the will in the world, his campaign is doomed. The almost five- hour-long film has been praised for Benicio del Toro’s performance, although critics are still arguing over whether Soderbergh’s portrait of Che is too dispassionate and uncritical.

Finally, the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival will show a string of movies and multimedia presentations on the theme of climbing and outdoor pursuits (February 20-28) at the Centennial Theatre in Lonsdale and Pacific Cinematheque. Details at


Robert Alstead maintains a blog at

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