Thrillers are supposed to keep you on tenterhooks, but the last one I saw was the snoozy French Tell No One, which went on so long and to so little purpose, that I had to start reading a magazine and folding laundry to make it to the end. (I get very antsy when bored and as an adolescent sometimes had to be prevented from cutting my own hair. Scissors are so filled with purpose.) I decided after that perhaps the French had different ideas about suspense. Their mysteries could be more diffuse, and their resolutions more ambiguous, as with the justly praised Cache.
Entre les murs (The Class in the USA), finally out on DVD, turns out to be an excellent thriller of just this French sort. I was nervous throughout the whole film. I feared shifting loyalties. I anticipated an explosion of violence. I wanted everything to turn out OK. Of course, The Class is not some shoot-em-up or even a whodunit, but the half-improvised, documentary-style film of the roman a clef by Francois Begaudeau, starring Francois Begaudeau himself as Francois Marin, a teacher of French in an inner-city French middle school. His job is such an uphill battle, his students so bright and yet such impediments to learning, that every day in his classroom feels like a Sisyphean task. A fellow teacher has a breakdown in the teachers’ lounge, voicing the rage at his 14-year-old tormentors all the teachers surely feel, but even he gets right back up and goes back to his room.
Maybe you have to have that rage to survive the hazing, the constant attempts to shift from grammar to homosexuality, Anne Frank to football. The perfection of the fact that Francois is a teacher of French (to a class of students from China, Mali, the Caribbean, Algeria) is brought home when, in several well-drawn scenes, he has to fall back on old-fashioned ideals of formality to explain both his role as teacher AND the subjunctive. He’s at a loss for words to communicate the gulf between their experience up to now and the vast world even a few Metro stops away. Everyone should at least have the subjunctive in her back pocket. By the end of the film you have to respect him for trying and, at least in this rewrite of his life, for turning almost every setback into a teachable moment. That’s thrilling.