An argument for bad films: Teaching Cantet’s The Class v. Lilienfeld’s Skirt Day

MV5BMTY2NDI0MDI1MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjUyODc5Mw@@._V1_SY317_CR5,0,214,317_So I’m preparing for my students in the Paris class and in my conversation/composition classes to watch their first films, respectively Laurent Cantet’s Entre les murs (The Class, 2008) and Jean-Paul Lilienfeld’s tele-film for Arte, La Journée de la jupe (Skirt Day, 2009). These films share several common elements:

• Both feature French classes – in The Class, a junior-high French grammar and composition course, and in Skirt Day, a high-school French literature course

• Both schools are poorly resourced, situated in “quartiers sensibles” (minority neighborhoods in crisis).

• Both teachers do problematic things to complicate the situation in reaction to their students acting out.

• The students are for the most part either Beur (second-generation) or immigrants from North and Sub-Saharan Africa.

• The students primarily speak in contemporary slang with a liberal dose of vulgarity as a matter of course.

• Both films presume a certain understanding of French Republican values (particularly mixité, the idea that all people should present an anonymous sameness in the public sphere in order to level social difference, and laïcité, or the secular public state).

This, however, is where the similarities end. The Class won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2008; Skirt Day, meanwhile, was a made-for-TV melodrama that made a small splash on the screen. The Class stars an actual junior high French teacher (François Bégadeau as the thoughtful and affable M. Marin; Bégadeau wrote the autobiographical novel on which the film was based) and actual students (one of whom, Esmeralda, I had the pleasure of tutoring at the Association de Culture Berbère a few years before the film was made). Skirt Day, meanwhile, stars legendary actress Isabelle Adjani as the trembly and unhinged lit prof Mme. Bergerac. The Class is a quiet and nuanced story; Skirt Day is highly dramatic and polarizing, both violent and sentimental.

I hadn’t seen either film since their theatrical releases in France. So it was striking to see them back-to-back this weekend: I was, as always, bowled over by the subtlety of Cantet’s work (his other films, Time Out and Human Resources, are also quietly powerful, riveting stories, and I recently learned that he is—or has – not sure which—adapted Joyce Carol Oates’ Foxfire for the screen, news that has me downright giddy.) And in the case of Lilienfeld’s film, I found myself shrinking with embarrassment over the absolute lack of nuance and suggestion. Viewers are more or less bludgeoned with the message “don’t judge a book by its cover.”

So as I was putting together viewing guides for my classes, I found myself thinking about how I was going to introduce the films. The Class would be fairly easy. “Show, don’t tell” serves as Cantet’s cinematic mantra, so you don’t need much understanding of contemporary France to get the point that these kids and their families live on the margins of French society, and pedagogical and disciplinary measures that seem obvious in more privileged communities can have far more serious and reaching consequences for these students.

Skirt Day, however, walks an odd line: it simultaneously spells out (through dialogue, costume, and dramatic reactions) exactly why a skirt can be seen as inflammatory in this school’s (and by extension, in the contemporary French) context, and yet presumes lived experience of French society and Republican values (as a tele-film likely would). The major turn in the denouement comes through information that was previously withheld about Adjani’s character. It’s not entirely fair play, and the “telling” is at moments mawkishly heavy-handed.

But for all its flaws, for American students of French language, literature, and culture, I’m thinking that Skirt Day will serve an important purpose. In some ways, the story mirrors the narrative to the French bans on headscarves and veils. It is unsparing in its depiction of sexual violence, one of the major concerns of activists for immigrant women since the rash of gang rapes in the 1990s that took places in suburban French communities following an influx of self-styled imams who professed fundamentalist forms of Islam. The gaps in the narrative that emerge due to the explicit explanations that presume shared knowledge of French society can help students see their own gaps in knowledge.

So I’ve realized that while The Class can be presented as both a work of art and as a cultural document, Skirt Day may, in fact, do more work to help non-native students of French understand some of the stakes – or at least, suggest how much more there is to know—and experience—before we can understand. The idea of who we are inside (back story, family heritage, and the presumed limits of our world and capabilities) vs. who the world sees outside is a driving theme for both films. And delving into the worlds of others: I’ve said this elsewhere, and others have said it better, but this is what the humanities is all about, right?


n+1’s World Lite: A Hopeful Response


“The key institution in the creation of World Literature has not been the literary festival, or even the commercial publishing house, but the university.” So write the editors at the influential and relatively young literary and criticism journal, n+1, in Issue 17, in turn posted their blog under the title “World Lite”—just in time for the return to school in August 2013. The editors went on to express their concern for this state of affairs, citing the sophomore efforts of novelists who became university professors after their debuts—such as Junot Díaz and Dinaw Mengestu—as removed, metafictional, rather than straightforward and direct.

As a professor of North African and Middle Eastern literature and culture in French, as well as a fiction writer and essayist, I must disagree with n+1’s assessment, as well as the statement that “No law of literature says the university can’t be the setting of great fiction, but it says something about the difficulty of the feat that the best example we can think of—[Don] DeLillo’s White Noise—was written by a writer who has never taught at one.” My first reaction is that former university professor Richard Russo’s cutting and hilarious yet gentle and empathetic novel Straight Man, narrated by the chair of an English department at the satellite campus of a public university, seems to be a lacuna in n+1 editors’ reading. Second, what of professors whose fiction writing remain steadfastly grounded in other realms of experience outside of the classroom? These include a number Francophone writers who teach in the American university system, such as Hélène Cixous, Maryse Conde, Assia Djebar, and Alain Mabanckou. These writers remain committed (and I use the term “committed” in the sense that Jean-Paul Sartre uses it in his essay “What is Literature?”) to represent experience from the periphery, of marginalization, of lives lived in second, third, or multiple languages and cultures.

And in turn, what can the fiction writer’s imagination do for the teaching of literature and culture? The problem with answering that question is that the ways in which the fiction writer has become codified within the American university system are completely unimaginative: these instructors and professors are ordered through English vs. foreign language, rather than genre or area of specialization. What do I mean by this? In brief and as a general principle, in the humanities, novelists who write in English will most frequently be found in creative writing programs and/or English departments, teaching American and English literature. Writers whose fiction is translated into English, by contrast, are most often housed in comparative literature, or a foreign/modern/classic/ancient/contemporary language department. And how often do we find scientists, sociologists, mathematicians, who are recognized for writing fiction?

This, I think, is really unfortunate. I recently read somewhere (and I will annotate this post as soon as I remember where) that it makes no sense for creative writing to be housed in English departments. Our influences as writers come from such wide-ranging, far-flung places.

I’m not exactly an envelope-pusher in this regard: I’m a French literature PhD who finds that she can’t help but write fiction as well. Both reading and writing order my world. And so they seep into everything else: my research, my parenting, and my teaching, just as a few examples. Personal essays with a critical point that were based on experiences during my research trips in Paris made their way into my dissertation. With my almost two-year-old daughter, I make up stories as we draw pictures, and I encourage her to narrate her experiences of the world (“Swing! Boom! Cry!” she recalls, and she touches her sore lower lip. “Yes, that’s right, sweetheart. That’s what happened, isn’t it?”). And as a teacher of French and Francophone literature and culture, whenever possible, I hinge class syllabi around narratives. For example, this fall, I teach a course on Paris literature and culture that I call “Metro Line 2: Paris Transnational,” that follows the logic of the metro line. Readings draw from the name of the stop; e.g., at the terminus Nation, we discuss the evolution of Place de la Nation and read Ernest Renan’s “What is a Nation?, while at Couronnes and Belleville we focus on the Jewish experience of Paris during the Vichy, using as a primary text Georges Perec’s W, Or the Memory of Childhood. Up at Barbès-Rochechouart, we read Leïla Sebbar’s Shérazade to open the discussion further to immigrant and second-generation experiences in Paris. And the idea is that the students will connect their own dots between the readings and lectures on the metro line and surrounding neighborhoods. Call it a simulated immersion experience (that’s what I’m going for, in some ways), or call it “cultivation of the terms under which reading occurs,” to borrow from Michael Allan’s insightful article on world literature.[1]

I’m not claiming that I do anything new, or novel. As a teacher, I draw from my experiences with a whole host of amazing teachers and professors (they who inspired me to do what it is I do for a living), my experiences as an undergraduate in Paris and how that differed from what I had expected, as well as my love of delving into other worlds through fiction, film, and music. What if I can reproduce that for my students in lit/culture courses?

As Ian McEwan wrote, “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.” And that’s what I want to get to as a fiction writer, and as a teacher of world literature. If my aims are for students to write from their own engagement with works across the humanities and their contexts, as well as to develop critical thinking and participatory citizenship skills that will serve them throughout their lives, then I need to walk the walk. But to the original point of n+1’s indictment of world literature as a university-borne phenomenon, I think this goes hand-in-hand with we are told about the humanities: that they are fading into obsolescence. Yet their relevance has never been more paramount in a world where news, information, and cultural works can be transmitted instantaneously. To possess textual interpretation skills that allow for the understanding of those different from us is part of what informs us as responsible citizens and members of a global community. And within textual interpretation comes the ability to imagine yourself in another place, another time, and most importantly, other shoes.

So let’s not diss world lit. Let’s just figure out more productive ways to putting it into service—and open up avenues for fiction writers to teach more imaginatively.

[1] Allan, Michael. “‘Reading With One Eye, Speaking With One Tongue’: On the Problem of Address in World Literature.” Comparative Literature Studies. 44:1-2 (2007): 1-19. Print.