I liked The Class (Entre Les Murs) by Laurent Cantet, but did not feel all that compelled to say so when it came out. Because it had good reviews I had no need to, and my glib comments about this depiction of Parisien inner city schooling would have added nothing to the debate. Yes, it looked tough, no it did not look as tough as we thought a London school would be. Yes its a tricky job, but perhaps the teacher went too far. It is exactly the kind of film which, as a Play For Today in the UK would have caused questions in parliament, which it did in France. Which for a socialist social realist like Cantet and his collaborator François Bégaudeau would have been the highest level of success. What is more interesting about the film is how it was made, that it was inspired by a book of the same name, a confessional tale of an adequate teacher in a similar school. That said teacher / writer was then encourage to help improvise and star in the final film is more unusual. It blurs the line between fact and fiction in an interesting way, almost the opposite of a docudrama: the incidents and most of the characters are fictional, the way they are handled perhaps not. Call it a Dramamentury instead.
At the same time, it was interesting to see Tokyo Sonata, a Japanese take on one of Cantet’s previous films. Well interesting is the wrong word as despite having much more in the way of plot than Cantet’s Time Out, it is too melodramatic but oddly dull. Tokyo Sonata is about a family, the father of which loses his job, though pretends to go to work every day without telling anyone. This is exactly the plot of Cantet’s Time Out , and Cantet manages to use this to wring out a bittersweet and eventually tragic tale of how a mans worth is tied up to status and work. There is an opportunity to tell the same type of story for a Tokyo salaryman, but then the film adds a teenage son who somehow joins the US army, another kid who discovers he is a musical prodigy and a bored wife. The movement into abuse from the father could be assigned to his lack of a job (and later the cleaning job he takes) but is also justified by him being generally mean and unpleasant. By the time the wife is attacked in her home, and then kidnapped, the story lacks any identifiable reality and has turned into a silly potboiler. The “happy” ending of the musical prodigy getting into music school adds a redemptive ending completely unearned which contrasts hugely with Cantet’s almost random and yet absolutely fittingly violent ending to Time Out.
Which reminds me how Cantet can make a small story fill a big screen. The Class is in a lot of ways a TV play blown up to the big screen. But what it lacks in visual excitement, it fills with personality and time. The film has enough time to explore its class, to give us a view of the development of these children, and even then hit us with its sucker punch at the end. Not like Time Out’s violent resolution, but just as strong. We have spent the entire film in this classroom, with the whole class. And yet when a child at the end says she has learned nothing, we recoil in shock because we don’t recognise her either. Its a lesson that Tokyo Sonata could have picked up from Cantet: sometimes to make a point, you don’t need violence, overblown plotting or even fake redemptive endings. You just need to follow your idea through with honesty, and perhaps without deviation.