The film received the Palme d'Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, making it the first French film to do so since 1987, when Maurice Pialat won the award for Under the Sun of Satan. The Class was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film but lost to Departures.
Set wholly in a secondary school in a working-class district of Paris, where many inhabitants are foreign-born, the film follows the year of a young teacher, François Marin, and the 25 pupils aged 14 or 15 who he takes for an hour each day in French language. A loner, he walks the narrow line between maintaining discipline and gaining co-operation.
From the start, wide differences are apparent in the class over standards of dress, deportment, knowledge and application. A dispute arises over using the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctive, which he admits may be a bit of an affectation and is then labelled as gay (his sexuality is not revealed in the film). When pupils have to read aloud from a set book, The Diary of Anne Frank, a girl called Khoumba refuses because she does not consider it relevant to her life. In private, François forces her to apologise.
Success comes when he asks the pupils to write a self-portrait. An assertive girl called Esmerelda reveals that she would like to be a policewoman or failing that, a rapper. A difficult boy called Souleymane, weak in written French, submits his story in an interesting series of photographs (at a parents' evening, his mother can speak no French at all). However, after an argument over football teams with Carl, another boy who is problematic, Souleymane insults François and is sent to the head teacher's office.
At a teachers' conference to decide final placings, François defends Souleymane but his efforts are undermined by the two student representatives at the meeting, Esmerelda and Louise, who behave in a very childish manner. Afterwards, though sworn to secrecy, the two girls tell the others that François had it in for Souleymane. A furious François rebukes the pair, saying they behaved like sluts. Uproar follows, in which Souleymane, after accidentally felling Khoumba with his sports bag, storms out and is suspended. After a disciplinary hearing at which Souleymane is supported by his mother, for whom he has to translate, he is excluded and faces possible deportation to his native country, Mali.
In the last lesson of the year, François asks each pupil what they have learned over the year. Carl has been inspired by science experiments in his chemistry class, Khoumba has warmed to music and enjoyed learning Spanish, Esmerelda pretends to have learned nothing but then admits that she has been reading Plato's Republic and is gripped by the character of Socrates. After they have all left the room, a quiet girl called Henriette comes back and despondently claims that she really has not learned anything at all. Outside, an impromptu football match has begun between the pupils and teachers, which François joins and scores a brilliant goal.François Bégaudeau : François Marin, the French language teacher.
Jean-Michel Simonet : the school principal.
Burak Ozyilmaz : Burak, top boy of the class.
Boubacar Touré : Boubacar, who accuses Marin of being gay.
Carl Nanor : Carl, who has been excluded from his previous school.
Louise Grinberg : Louise, top girl of the class and a student delegate.
Esmeralda Ouertani : Esmeralda, the other student delegate.
Franck Keïta : Souleymane, whose lack of control leads to him being disciplined.
Henriette Kasaruhanda : Henriette, the silent girl who says she has learned nothing.
Rachel Régulier : Khoumba, the girl who refuses to read.
The film has received critical acclaim, achieving a 95% rating at Rotten Tomatoes out of 151 reviews counted. The site's consensus reads, "Energetic and bright, this hybrid of documentary style and dramatic plotting looks at the present and future of France through the interactions of a teacher and his students in an inner city high school." Metacritic lists Entre les murs with a rating of 92, making it one of the best reviewed films of the year according to the website.
The film was warmly reviewed by the critic Philip French who noted: "There is a remarkable French tradition of school films, extending from Jean Vigo's Zéro de Conduite, to Nicolas Philibert's Être et avoir. Laurent Cantet, whose parents were both teachers, carries it on and he elicits marvellous performances...As the teacher at a tough, racially mixed, inner-city school in Paris, Marin (François Bégaudeau), neither weary cynic nor wide-eyed idealist, is a decent, determined realist..not a saint, though by the end of the school year he has exhibited certain of the necessary qualities."
The film was the featured 'opening night' selection at the 46th New York Film Festival in 2008.
The film appeared on many critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2008.