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Modern Languages Study Guides: Entre les murs

Author: Hélène Beaugy
Publisher: Hodder
ISBN: 9781471891755
Reviewer: Davina Suri

I still vividly remember going to see this film, directed by Laurent Cantet, at the cinema in 2009. The film resonated profoundly with me, distinctly recalling my experience as a Teach First trainee in a similarly diverse and challenging environment. I was shattered at the end of the film, much as I was at the end of each teaching day in Mitcham, knocked sideways by the film’s realistic portrayal of teaching a group of challenging teenagers who all bring their own set of diverse, complex problems, whether academic, social, economic or cultural, to the classroom. Once I had got over the initial force of the film, my question was: why has nobody in the UK made this film? Knowing that the film’s content was as much of a reality here as in France, I was perhaps disappointed that it had taken a foreign film to tell my story.

This guide certainly does not set out to answer that question. Perhaps because of space constraints, the film is not contextualised in France’s contemporary film history and this is an oversight. Many of our students will never have seen a film like this before and would need to know that it has not come from nowhere. At the very least, Beaugy could have included a succinct timeline and a short list of recommended films to watch at home; Etre et avoir or L’Esquive spring to mind.

This perhaps in part of what I see as the fundamental flaw to these guides: they are for both AS and A Level study. Clearly, a group preparing for the AS Level has much less time and perhaps inclination to go into the depth of analysis required for the A Level. This guide would suit an AS class well; the sections in English are reassuring and supportive and there are structured linguistic exercises and thematic explorations that lead the pupils into talking about the film in a successful way. Were I to teach this film to an A Level class, I would want some more lengthy excerpts from the screenplay (if that is the word we use for a largely unscripted film?) that we could analyse in class or individually. The contrast in the different kinds of language the characters use at different times is important and requires attention. Similarly, in a film guide there should be more cinematic language used, in French, so that the pupils got used to talking about different camera shots and viewpoints with confidence.  

Clearly, the biggest challenge of using these guides to teach our pupils in French and to write in French on the text in question is that so much of the content is in English. I wonder if the exam board did not want a textbook that contained chunks of text that pupils could learn and produce verbatim in an essay? If that is the case, the publisher could have been cleverer about how the French appeared in the guide; I would appreciate comprehension questions in French, texts that demand language manipulation or more guided close analysis of certain scenes.

My final concern about these books as that, in an effort to make literary or film study seem achievable, the texts in question are reduced to exam fodder. It is quite depressing to see the word ‘grade booster’ on page seven of a guide to a film. I wonder if English literature A Level guides use the same language? However, if these guides are simply used as revision tools and kept out of the way until the pupils have had time to enjoy and explore the film for themselves, perhaps that is where these books come in useful. The scene-by-scene descriptions from Entre les murs are succinct and helpful and the key quotations and exam technique and sample essays are certainly valuable tools.

In brief, an A Level class studying Entre les murs will need much more input than this guide has to offer, whether they are aiming for a C or an A*: the former will need more structured demonstrations of how to use sophisticated French to write on the film and the latter would need to be pushed to analyse the text more closely, perhaps with reference to a bibliography. That said, in the absence of anything better, who wouldn’t buy this guide? It is well-presented and  carefully designed for the course that we are teaching. I should confess that I am teaching Boule de Suif instead and I know that my pupils would feel a bit safer with such a book in their hands. Regretfully I may say it, but as soon as one becomes available, I will no doubt place an order nonetheless.