Saturday, October 3, 2009

Storytelling and Entre Les Murs (Laurent Cantet)

Entre Les Murs, which won the Palme d'Or in Cannes in 2008, is a very interesting film which breaks most of the screenwriting rules and yet is riveting from the first minute to the last.

The screenplay, written by the director Laurent Cantet and the main actor, François Bégaudeau, is based on Bégaudeau's autobiographical book chronicling his experiences as a teacher in Paris.

Bégaudeau plays François Marin, a French teacher in a Parisian school with an ethincally very diverse population.
The film never leaves the school: we know nothing about the characters except for what we see of them within the scholarly environment. We have no idea about Marin's personal life, his relationships, his troubles outside of the workplace.

Though the film covers an entire school year, there is no major plotline which develops as its driving force, and we don't really get much of a sense of time passing. There's no structural model with clearly discernible turning points or story pattern with

And character arcs are conspicuous by their complete absence. Marin doesn't change his approach to teaching, even though it's only intermittently succesful. Nor does he get to understand his pupils better, no matter how hard he tries, or does he effect a miraculous change in one or more of them. And there's certainly no uplifting moral victory anywhere in sight at the end of the film.

So what does this film have that makes it so compelling?

Two things. The first is realism: the script was workshopped and improvised over a period of about a year with teenagers who basically play themselves (all but two use their own names in the film) and who attend the sort of school portrayed in the film. Bégaudeau naturally is totally convincing as a real teacher. The class sequences are so true to life they seem to be part of a documentary. By contrast, the scenes of the teachers among themselves feel (slightly) more staged.

The second thing? Conflict.

The film is filled to the brim with it. The class sequences are a never-ending confrontation between the well-meaning teacher who tries to interest his pupils in the topics he teaches them, and looks for ways to link it to their own experiences; and the pupils who for the most part seem to resist learning anything at all to the best of their ability, and who freely vent their disrespect of their teacher and their racist feelings towards each other. Though there is no sensationalism whatsoever (no headline-worthy excesses of violence), these sequences are unsettling by their intensity and their truthfulness.

But even the scenes outside of the classroom nearly all have some sort of conflict (teachers vs. parents, teachers vs. the principal, teachers squabbling amongst themselves...). Though these scenes are far less intense than the classroom scenes, they certainly aren't flat or harmonious.

I don't want to imply there is absolutely no plot in Entre Les Murs - the strongest narrative thread concerns a rebellious African pupil, Souleyman, whose seething anger and resentment boil over near the end of the film when Marin gets mad at the girls who, as class represetatives, have leaked end-of-term results to their classmates. There's an altercation in class, Souleyman faces the disciplinary board and is expelled from school, possible to be sent back to his homeland, Mali, by his dad.

But this is told more as an incident, a sequence of events which follow each other chronologically rather than as the strongly causal narrative we find in, say, Dead Poets' Society. In the climactic hearing, Marin is silent the entire time and Souleyman only translates his mother's heartfelt but misguided plea in favour of her son. So there is no ultimate effort by the parties involved in the conflict to triumph.

Of course the conditions in which this script was created are fairly unique, and will rarely if ever be available to other writers. But the film serves as an object lesson to the power of conflict to carry a film, even in the face of the absense of a strong conflict or traditional story patterns.

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