Having convinced himself hes the last hope for his students to haul themselves out of the dead-end mediocrity of a tough Parisian neighbourhood, a twentysomething teacher is dismayed when they accuse him of indifference and intolerance.
Two French films were released in 2008 about young teachers falling foul of the system. In Christophe Honoré’s La Belle Personne, Louis Garrel’s bid for popularity proves as much his undoing as his reckless libido. But here, François Bégaudeau sets out to be a force for good in the lives of students dismissed as no-hopers by several of his colleagues and, as a result, he struggles to comprehend their ingratitude when they assert their autonomy and seek to have him punished for a misjudged remark.
Adapted from Bégaudeau’s novel and workshopped by the on-professional cast, Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or winner is essentially a study in disappointment, showing how quickly children forget the efforts of teachers to encourage a passion for learning and a sense of acceptance. Bégaudeau wants his pupils to respect each other, but is consistently frustrated by their self-absorption and the pack mentality that causes them to feud over the hegemony of their roots and accuse him of derogating them individually and collectively.
There’s no room, therefore, for the mawkish nobility that informs Hollywood schooldays movies such as Dead Poets Society and Dangerous Minds. Indeed, as you would expect of Cantet, this is less an inspirational melodrama than a discussion of workplace politics, in the manner of Human Resources and Time Out. Thus, he explores staffroom as well as classroom realities to emphasise teachers’ hands are tied in dealing with the likes of the confidently insolent Esméralda Ouertani, the self-victimising Rachel Régulier and the inflammatory Franck Keita, who cries racial or religious fouls whenever anybody questions his behaviour.
The debuting Bégaudeau ably captures the enthusiasm and discomfort of an idealist. He may not always be assured alongside his adult co-stars in sequences that awkwardly convey how contrasting stances on discipline are shaped by age, gender and class, but he makes the ideal foil for a young cast bristling with attitude, prejudices and insecurites, as the kids strive to test both Bégaudeau’s liberalism and their own convictions. The resulting stand-offs are tense, amusing and never anything less than authentic.
In addition to being one of the best school films of recent times, this is a troubling but gripping exposé of the cultural and racial divisions crippling Europe. Intelligent, well acted and deeply discomfiting.