That time I had to watch a French film

Last semester I had to choose a French movie to watch for an assignment in French 102. I selected “Entre Les Murs” (“In Between the Walls”), which I’d heard described as the French version of the “Freedom Writers.” The documentary-within-a-movie follows a young French teacher as he spends a school year struggling to connect with students in a diverse, inner-city Paris neighborhood.

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But when I finished the movie, all I could do was sit open-mouthed and wonder what exactly had happened. Throughout the two-hour movie M. Marin had tried his hardest to teach the students French grammar and creative writing, sometimes becoming losing his temper or making short-lived breakthroughs, but all for nothing.

The movie’s ending wasn’t tragic, but it was far from happy and left lots of loose ends to try to sort through. There was no explanation about what happened to any of the students after the end of the school year, and it was clear that M. Marin had failed to connect with most of them.

What was the point? I was almost offended, wishing I hadn’t wasted my time.

Luckily our class discussion and some of my own research made me understand exactly what I’d watched.

Ambiguous endings like these are left over from the La Nouvelle Vague, or the New Wave movement. These filmmakers had grown tired of the tidy, formulaic movies of previous generations. Inspired by the tragic realities of living in occupied France during World War II, they began to focus on realism, using location filming, discontinuous editing and non-linear story lines.

While “Entre Les Murs” did not exhibit all the hallmarks of this style, its unresolved conflicts and open ending served as a vivid example.

I’m used to American films, where even if the ending isn’t happy, tensions are resolved and the audience can easily predict what will happen to the characters. The style of “Entre Les Murs” isn’t bad or wrong; it’s simply rooted in realism in a way that most American movies aren’t. Sometimes life itself is open-ended without clear answers, and the endings of French films tend to illustrate that.

This experience was one of those liberal arts moments. I often get frustrated having to spend time studying subjects like ethics, statistics and French. The assignment to watch a French film seemed straight forward enough, but I was grateful I ended up finding a new appreciation for something I’d never expected to learn about.

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