In 1987, France won the Palme d'Or with Under the Sun of Satan by Maurice Pialat, the story of a possessed priest set in 1926 rural France. Twenty-one years later, Laurent Cantet has just repeated the feat with his film Entre les Murs (called The Class in English). Between those two Palme d'Ors, a world apart. On Sunday night in Cannes, France left its Catholic angst behind to now firmly confront, perhaps even embrace, the 21st century.
In a masterly stroke of programming, Cantet's film had been left to the last day of the festival. Jury members, film critics and festival-goers at large, exhausted and eager to go back home, weren't expecting anything special from a film added to the official selection at the last minute. Yet, in just a few opening scenes, we were gripped, all nationalities alike. The dramatic premises are so simple, they are universal and touched us all to the core.
It's the month of September: teachers, old and new, gather for a new school year. We're in Paris, in the 20th district, a multicultural and authentic part of the French capital where Parisians of all social and ethnic origins live in relative harmony. Experienced teachers, going through name listings, warn the newcomers about the pupils: "Him, nice; her, nice; him, oh, not nice; him, not nice at all; her, nice ...," and so on. It looks as if things are not going to be so easy after all.
Thirty-something François teaches French, and he likes his work. We, the audience, are going to be spending a whole academic year with him and his 14-year-old students. For two hours, we'll stay within the walls (literally entre les murs) of the classroom. Based on François Bégaudeau's novel about his experience as a teacher and performed by him, Entre les Murs is a very efficient and extremely well-documented script interpreted by real students and non-professional actors. Filmed with two cameras, directed in fluid shots despite the action being confined in such a small space, Entre les Murs is a tete-a-tete between France and its educational system. It may also be seen as the trial of France by its aspiring citizens.
Since the revolution, education in France has held, perhaps more so than in any other European country, a pivotal place in society. With the most important ministry in France - employing 1.3 million civil servants, and an overall budget of €116bn, education is the heart of the country. The classroom is where French citizens are born and where the nation has been shaped since 1789.
But how to reconcile the inherent contradictions of the French system: not to exclude yet be firm, to recognise diversities yet teach one culture. Laurent Cantet and François Bégaudeau don't shy away from exposing the system's flaws. They do it with subtlety, through impressionistic touches and revealing anecdotes, and judge no one.
The audience is left with François trying every day to engage in a conversation with youngsters who are in turn unruly, moody, clever, plain vicious, hardworking, impudent, violent even. This not Alan Bennett's The History Boys. No talk of preparing for Oxford or any grande école. Cantet's pupils are Rousseau's bons sauvages. Teaching them the past subjunctive becomes a herculean task and a confrontation between old and new France; helping them to express themselves becomes a struggle of Dantesque proportion in which the fear of revealing too much of one's roots leads to clashes with the teacher's authority; interesting them in literature turns into an olympian achievement. In the process, the question of identity comes back again and again. François has to suffer being called a jambon-beurre by Nassim, while Souleyman doesn't want to hear about supporting France at football and tries to coerce his fellow students into rejecting the national team.
For two hours, the audience's emotions run high. These 14-year-olds make you cringe when they try to exploit their teacher, or make you reach for the whip when they are lashing out insult after insult. They make you laugh to tears when they outwit each other, or leave you in awe when their intelligence suddenly strikes like lightning. They also make you want to cry when one says she is ashamed of being French.
François and his colleagues, too, have us on the edge of our seats. At times we wish they were stricter, less complacent, but in the end they get our boundless admiration for trying, sometimes failing, but at least always trying their hardest, to build the 21st-century République.
Agnès Poirier, a journalist and film critic.