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Posts Tagged ‘Youth movie’

Entre les murs / The Class, France 2008) and It All Starts Today / Ça commence aujourd’hui, France, 1999,

Posted by keith1942 on May 24, 2020

I want to discuss a French film success The Class, along with an earlier and comparable film by Bertrand Tavernier, It All Starts Today. Both are really interesting films dealing with education and teaching. And they are part of a long-running cycle in French cinema, reaching back to Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933) and continuing to the recent documentary success directed by Nicolas Philibert, Etre et Avoir (2002). The latter features a rural primary school; a long way from the situation in The Class.

The Class presents the audience with a year in the life of a suburban Paris school, focusing on one teacher, François, and the class to whom he teaches French language. The film is based on a book by an actual teacher, François Marin. Marin himself plays the protagonist François. And the students are from a school in a Zone d’Education Prioritaire.

The Sight & Sound synopsis reads in part:

    ” He [François] and his colleagues are shown teaching inattentive yet opinionated adolescents, some of whom have significant behavioural and personal problems.

François attempts to engage his pupils critically, using every opportunity to make them reflect on themselves and the subjects being studied. However, his efforts to create a stimulating learning environment are continually undermined by the need to impose discipline on frequently unruly and insolent pupils.”

This is fine in terms of an ‘official’ plot. However, the mise en scène, especially the performance of a predominately non-professional cast, suggests a different ‘subplot’. The film appears to present a positive engagement of a liberal teaching approach with pupils from deprived situations. But this liberal ethos is undermined by the developments we see taking place in the classroom.

The French title, Entre les murs , translating as ‘within the walls’, offers a more accurate rendition of the film. For the students are clearly caught within the confines of this educational institution, deemed to be in their interests. I should say that they did appear fairly motivated in comparison with some actual British student groups I have encountered. The most dramatic and violent moment occurs when an African student from Mali, Souleymane, accidentally strikes a fellow pupil with his satchel.

The classroom in which these students sit increasingly becomes a ‘stage’ for their teacher, François. Good teaching navigates a fine line between display and engagement. What I noticed was that as the year progresses François becomes increasingly taken with the display he presents to these students. Despite his frequent questions and the usage of their cultural language, François is ‘presenting’. One notices that François’ interaction with students is limited to certain extrovert students. The point is emphasised when one black girl, often seen in shot but never speaking, confesses at the end of the year that ‘she does not know what she has learnt.’ Francois’ response is to demur and insist that she will discover that she has learnt something: but I incline to think the student was the more accurate. Ginette Vincendeau in Sight & Sound suggested that in both book and film it is “beur and black pupils [that] are the most disruptive (the white pupils are visually and orally marginalised) . . .” I am not certain this is completely so, but it does fit with the power relations that the film dissects.

The climax of the classroom interaction is the one occasion when François loses his ‘cool’ with his challenging charges. He calls two girl students pétasses (‘skanks’ according to the subtitles, I think ‘slags’ gives a sense of this). The incident escalates as Souleymane discovers that François has labelled him as ‘limited’ during a teacher assessment. Souleymane’s abrupt exit, with a girl struck by his satchel, leads to a disciplinary hearing. On one of the few occasions that we learn about situations beyond the school we are told that expulsion for Souleymane would mean him having to return to his home country of Mali. Despite this, the hearing leads to his expulsion. His mother, who has to have the French of the hearing translated for her by her son, sits and listens, displaying a clear awareness of the power relations being brought to bear on Souleymane.

There seemed to me a clear intent by the director, Laurent Cantet, to demonstrate the limitations of the liberal teaching ethos. The incident involving Souleymane was taken from another script written by Cantet. In an interview he suggests a rather ambiguous standpoint. “The film is utopian about the possibilities this kind of setting offers, but pessimistic about the school system in general.” Quite a few critics saw the film as endorsing the approach of François and regarded the climatic confrontation as demonstrating

“the fragility of a world in which a single word . . . can bring a year’s work, a lifetime investment in a career, and the modest hopes of a young man’s family, crashing down.” (Sight & Sound review).

My teaching friends tended to be much more critical of the teacher François. And for me, those positive reviews fail to pick up on the nature of interaction of teacher and students. This interaction is actually a manifestation of the social and economic relations that determine the situation of both teachers and students. However, I think the film fails to make this point that strongly, partly because of its enclosed representation of a school: by not going beyond its walls.

By comparison Bertrand Tavernier’s film, It All Starts Today has a very overt political discourse. The film focuses on Daniel, a head-teacher in an infant school in an-ex-mining area in Northern France. Like The Class, It All Starts Today is based on actual experience. In this case it is the memories described to Tavernier by Dominique Sampiero. However, Sampiero did not write a book and Tavernier himself developed his accounts into a scripted story. And unlike The Class, whilst there are clearly non-professional adult and child performers, there are also professional actors cast in the film. Presumably this was in part due to Tavernier writing in scenes of life away from the school, both within Daniel’s own family and within the families of some of the school students. The plotting of the story produces an uneven narrative: parts of the film parallel the documentary feel of The Class: other sequences are clearly dramatisations.

But this scripting also introduces a clear political and economic discourse. The mining town of Hernaing has seen pit closures. The mayor informs us that employment is at 34%. We see the poverty and deprivation when the children return from school. In one traumatic case unpaid electricity bills lead to a suicide and infanticide by a mother. Daniel, like François, is clearly on the sides of the students. But he is also clearly set off from the authorities and the establishment. Whilst François becomes a participant in the ‘trial’ of Souleymane, Daniel is shown repeatedly in conflict with his superiors and local agencies. One of his conflicts with authorities is over attempts to have the school designated as a ‘priority zone’. And the depiction of violence includes the complete trashing of the school by two local teenagers.

I found The Class created a fine sense of the school and the class, with impressive performances from the students. It All Starts Today achieves this only intermittently with its far younger students. But I felt that the latter film did have a more developed political discourse. Tavernier also directed an earlier film dealing with education; A Week’s Vacation / Une semaine de vacances (1980). Nathalie Baye plays Laurence Cuers, a school teacher, who takes a week off from teaching to re-assess her life.

Des [of the Media Education Journal] commented on another example:

“Another film in the long line of films about the French education system worth looking at is Truffaut’s 1976 film, L’argent de poche / Small Change or (pocket money). I’m never quite sure about Truffaut’s films about adults but he is on surer ground with children. Unlike many films about children, the film doesn’t make them overly precocious or sentimentalise their experiences. It’s a bit more optimistic than both Ca commence aujourdhui and Entre les murs (despite highlighting an individual tragedy) but avoids the overblown sentimentality of Les choristes (which, alas, is far more popular with French teachers than all of the above mentioned; a 2004 French film set in a boarding school). The teacher’s final address to the class who are about to move on (Jean-François Stevenin had a singular talent for representing ‘goodness’) should be shown to all student teachers.”

What is interesting about all these films is that they treat education as a concept and a practice. This is something that is much rarer in British cinema. A famous example, Kes (1969), from Ken Loach and his colleagues, is actually about a school student. It does include schooling in its damning indictment of Britain’s social and economic world. If…’ (1968) is actually about the reproduction of class though set in a public school. In a totally different tenor Tom Brown’s School Days [five versions between 1916 and 2005] treats the same topic. Other examples that I can think of are like The Browning Version (six versions between 1949 and 1994), a drama set in school. In fact, the majority of British films set in schools seem to be either about the public school ethos or universities; which speaks volumes about the class attitudes dominant in British cinema. Films that treat of schools with working class students tend to be about reform. This is where an enlightened teacher transforms an unruly class into a positive learning group. Spare the Rod (1961) and To Sir With Love  (1967) are examples of such films which cross over with the focus provided in The Class.  But even here the parallel is limited as outside social and political values hardly obtrude. Even when, as in To Sir With love, one issue  the Afro-Caribbean teacher, the racism outside school hardly figures.

I reckon the difference is down to French cinema having what we would term a viable independent/art cinema; something that has never quite managed to develop an autonomous space in Britain.

Both the French titles are well made and well worth viewing. Note also, both were filmed in anamorphic formats, (i.e. 2.35:1), so if you watch it away from the cinema screen, check it has not been cropped. You will miss quite a lot!

The interview with Laurent Cantet is in Sight & Sound November 2008 issue: the film review of the film and the article by Ginette Vincendeau are in the March 2009 issue. And there is a review of the Tavernier film in the August 1999 issue.

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Ung Flukt (The Wayward Girl, Norway 1959)

Posted by keith1942 on March 7, 2019

This was a title in the Berlinale Classics programme. It fitted in to a theme that was central to the Retrospective and to the Film Festival overall, women’s film-making. This was the tenth feature directed by Edith Carlman. Edith Carlman was a dancer and actress who moved into cinema. In 1949, she and her husband Otto Carlman, set up a film production company, Carlman Film A/S. This title was her final film;

“The illegitimating daughter of a single working mother 17-year-old Gerd (Liv Ullman, aged 20 in her first leading role) has fallen into delinquency. After she spends a brief stint in police custody, Gerd’s boyfriend, a student, ( Anders – Atle Merton), disobeys his parents and take her away to the country to protect her from bad influences.” (Retrospective Brochure).

The film opens with a two-shot of Anders and Gerd in a car travelling along a wooded road. We then watch two flashbacks, one first by Anders and then one by Gird. This fills in the background to the young couple’s journey. Anders parents seem middle class and clearly disapprove of his girlfriend Gerd; the mother has particular worries, the father is slightly more tolerant. Anders himself worries about Gerd and one night follows her when she is out and is arrested by police near the docks. In Gerd’s flashback we learn that she has been promiscuous and that on this occasion she has been with two older men on a moored ship. When Gerd is released Anders takes his father’s car, [without permission] and drives with Gerd into the country. He is aiming for an old partly ruined cabin in wooded hills which he has found on country outings with his father.

Anders is experienced in country walking and properly equipped; Gerd is inexperienced and dressed inappropriately, heeled shoes for one. Anders does not seem to have given any thought to this. The couple park the car and hike up into the hills. This is some way and they have to sleep out in the open. Next day they arrive at the old cabin. It is some state of disrepair as is a nearby barn, but the couple soon make themselves at home. Now there is one of those rural idylls found in Scandinavian cinema. They walk in the open, enjoy the sunshine and nude bathing. Whilst not explicit it seems clear that the couple are sleeping together and having sex.

Anders has bought limited supplies. After a few days they illicitly dig up potatoes from a field lower in the woods. This minor offence is followed by a major one when they kill a sheep from the flock grazing in the open.

This is followed by the arrival of an older man Bendik (Rolf Søder), a hunter carrying a rifle. Bendik seems almost to have been called forth by the crime of killing a sheep. He is experienced in wood craft, skinning the freshly killed sheep. He is also uninhibited by any moral code, involving the young couple into a break-in in a store at the village lower down. He is also taken with Gerd, who seems to reciprocate. These various dramatic strands including Anders jealousy, the investigation of the theft and the concerns of the parents back in Oslo come together in a climax.

The plot includes a number of conventional elements. As a ‘youth exploitation’ film it offers pop music, sex, and generational conflict. But it has unusual sexual frankness, and as the Brochure notes,

“Unlike American [USA) teen films about juvenile delinquents, Edith Calmar’s tenth feature is sympathetic to the plight of an adolescent who is as vivacious as she is fragile.”

In fact the film is generally sympathetic to all the conflicted characters. The parents emerge as more caring, even Anders’ mother, than they appear at first glance. Bendik, who is actually a wanted criminal, is less exploitative and more helpful that he first seems. Even the authorities are not completely judgemental on the couple.

The disruption of the youth idyll by the arrival of an older and more knowledgeable man is also conventional. But the film’s sympathetic treatment ensures that the plot does not just follow a predictable course, though the film does manage a positive resolution to the drama.

The film involves contrasts between the city and the countryside. The city is fairly conventional in the representation. The home of Anders and his parents is conventionally and comfortably middle class. Gerd’s home is the opposite, lacking in comfort and any sense of stability. Gerd has a bunk bed in an alcove rather than her own room. Her bed is overlooked by a number of pin-ups. These include Louis Jourdan and [more notable] Brigitte Bardot. The scenes at the dock are darker and the sequence where Gerd dances for two men in a cabin has a definite transgressive quality.

Contrast is also created between present and past. The flashbacks, starting right at the opening of the film, are very important. We learn first about Anders and only later about Gerd’s backstory. And it is much later in the film that flashbacks fill our the viewpoint of the parents and in Gerd’s case of a sympathetic social worker.

The film is very effective. The cinematography by Sverre Bergli emphasises this contrast and, as in common in Scandinavian films, provides excellent location filming with a strong sense of nature.

“escape into a utopia of a Scandinavian summer”.

The film editing is fairly conventional for the period but the criss-cross between present and past works extremely well. The settings, both of locations and in a studio, are convincing. The film uses a fairly typical sound track, including at some points actual popular music.

The director, Edith Calmar, controls this in a effective manner. We had an introduction before the film and the point was made that her early films tended to be ‘dark realist dramas’. There followed a series of social comedies but this film returned to the social problem context. Whilst the film is predominantly conventional and generic the touches of sympathy and characterisations give it a distinctive feel.

The cast serve the story well. Atle Merton as Anders and Rolf Søder as Bendik are completely convincing. Liv Ullman’s Gerd is the central character. In her first leading role she catches the wilful but often spontaneous misbehaviour with conviction. The visual treatment of her character at time mirrors the representation found in Bardot’s films; which presumably is deliberate. The Brochure quotes one critic who was less enamoured with this approach;

“Her face is lively and expressive, and she has sex. It is quite superfluous for Edith Calmar to put so much emphasis on her breasts and thighs. She has more subtle and significant means at her disposal.” (Leif Borthen in an Oslo Daily ‘Verdens Gang’.)

The film was scripted by Otto Calmar and adapted from a novel by Nils Johan Rud, ‘Ettersøkte er 18 år’ (1958); literally ‘Wanted is 18 Years’; the film’s alternative title is ‘Young Escape’. Rud wrote novels, short stories and children’s books and also edited a magazine. The novel presumably picked up on the new ‘youth culture’ and social apprehensions around this. It is interesting to wonder if the novel had the same sympathetic treatment.

The film was restored by the National Library of Norway, Oslo in 2018. The main source was the original negative scanned at 4k into a 4K DCP, with the soundtrack digitally restored. So we had a good quality screening to enjoy. This is the first film directed by Edith Calmar that I have seen. I look forward to seeing more, especially the early films.

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