Andy Horbal, who I'm glad to see has taken up the blogging baton again, asks a simple but entirely apposite question about Entre les murs: what to do with this film? While superficially it seems to be concerned with the situation of the education system in inner-city Paris - though it gives the viewer very little sense of the world beyond the walls of the title, and indeed there are few clues that the film takes place in the capital rather than its oft-maligned banlieues - it's difficult to determine what it's trying to say.
After all, on at least one level the system is demonstrably not broken: salaries are paid, most children attend school, problems are moved from one institution to another to at least attempt to give students a fresh start, and the school functions as a means of passing on French republican values through constant debate and contestation. Even as the students are challenging the system's relevance to their lives, and pointing out that such ethnic and linguistic diversity was never imagined by those who founded the modern education system, they're doing so within well-tested boundaries. The teachers themselves function as a mirror image of this debate, with their school operating as a testing ground for their own ideas of citizenship: while their lives are, day in and day out, exhausting and frustrating, there's still a clear framework in place within which the film never really calls into question.
And yet, as Andy points out, there's also a terrible sense that these students, even as they're being inculcated into a certain way of seeing the world - une certaine idée de la France - are acquiring almost nothing in the way of concrete knowledge, for the system insists that they diligently master the imperfect subjunctive but never seems to test them in any meaningful way, while any really new ideas are absorbed on their own time, as in the scene where a student reveals she's read Plato's Republic. That scene, though, tips the film's hand: it's as obvious as anything in the Hollywood inner-city high genre, and while this film has the virtue of giving the students themselves a voice, it manages to do so in ways that are occasionally eerily reminiscent of a much more obviously conventional film, Freedom Writers, which also makes prominent use of The Diary of Anne Frank as a means to draw the students out.
(Michael Sicinski's dissection of the film makes useful reading, particularly in terms of setting the film within its documentary context, as well as in exploring the acutely illogical nature of one key plot development; it's worth seeing the film first, though).