Nostalgia trumps grit in French cinema battle

John Lichfield
Wednesday 01 October 2008 00:00

One is a gritty, cheaply-made docu-drama carved from the muddled lives of teenagers in a troubled, multi-racial suburb. The other is an all-singing, all-dancing tribute to the bonhomie of the lost working-class Paris of the 1930s.

Two excellent movies, which represent utterly opposing approaches to cinema, have gone head-to-head at the French box-office in the past week. The result has defied all expectations.

At a time of unrelieved gloom in world affairs, many predicted that the nostalgic glow of Faubourg 36 would triumph over the sweat and slang of the classroom drama, Entre les Murs. After five days each movie has already attracted around 350,000 cinema-goers but it is the low-budget Entre les Murs which tops the French box-office.

The film, directed by Laurent Cantet, stars a teacher turned writer and actor, François Bégaudeau, and two dozen 15-year-olds as his stereotype-busting class. Entre les Murs cost only €2.4m (£1.9m) to make but became the first French entry for 21 years to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival in May.

The American actor, Sean Penn, who chaired the Cannes jury, said at the time: "I want my kids to see this movie and not just my kids." As The Class, the film was much praised at the New York film festival last week and is predicted to win a cult following in the United States.

Faubourg 36 cost €28m to make – a high budget in French terms – and stars two of the best-loved comic actors in the French cinema, Gérard Jugnot and Kad Merad. The movie tells the story of unemployed working class people in pre-war Paris who stage their own musical show to survive. Its director, Christophe Barratier, had a stunning success in France in 2004 with another nostalgic musical film, Les Choristes.

The two movies were rivals to be the official French entry for Best Foreign Film at next year’s Oscars. That contest was won by Entre les Murs. In order to qualify, its French opening date, scheduled for late October, had to be brought forward to last Wednesday. As a result, Entre les Murs found itself in direct competition with Faubourg 36, which had been predicted to be the runaway French box-office hit of the autumn.

Most critics predicted that the gentler, costlier movie would triumph. They have been proved wrong – in Paris and its surrounding multi-racial suburbs spectacularly so.

In the greater Paris area, Entre les Murs sold 112,000 tickets in the first five days, compared to 77,000 for Faubourg 36. In the rest of France, the big-budget movie did marginally better than the improvised class-room drama but “Entre les Murs” took first place in the overall French box-office, 356,000 seats to 345,000.

Although Entre des Murs is a "fictional" film, it is based on an autobiographical book by M. Begaudeau, who plays himself. There was a loose script but much of the dialogue was improvised in seven weeks of filming last summer. The 140 hours of raw footage were reduced to two.

The movie has been criticised by some French teachers and politicians. They say that it gives a misleading impression of "college" – or middle-school – education in France as a kind of permanent, often ungrammatical, argument, or discussion, between teachers and pupils. Where are the lessons? Where are the endless exercises in dictation?

The director, M. Cantet, says that the film is not supposed to be a realistic portrait of a "normal" class. It shows how an unconventional teacher can challenge the stereotype of a "care-nothing" generation and provoke young people into thinking for themselves about education, democracy and race.

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