by Michael Joshua Rowin
Dir. Laurent Cantet, France, Sony Pictures Classics
Despiteâ€”or perhaps because ofâ€”its Palme dâ€™Or win at Cannes earlier this year, word on the street is that Laurent Cantetâ€™s The Class is a weak opening night selection for 2008 New York Film Festival, a tepid piece of liberal hand-wringing over the current state of French education and that institutionâ€™s inability to adapt to the countryâ€™s changing ethnic and racial identity. In comparison, some have said, to a more complex and engrossing quasi-document like the fourth season of The Wire (a show with which I still remain unfamiliar), who cares? But having recently seen the NYFFâ€™s inexplicably selected Afterschool, a film set in a similar milieu that indulges in callow luridness and aesthetic superficiality, Iâ€™m more than willing to defend The Class. If comparisons are going to be made I have to go with what I know, and I know that The Class, while undeniably catering to middlebrow tastes, possesses reserves of humanity, especially in contrast to some of its patronizing brethren.
In the first place, The Class is a welcome corrective to a significant omission in the vast majority of junior high or high school moviesâ€”actual classroom activity. Because, presumably, nobody wants to relive the tedium and obligation of school, the teaching of young people is ignored or else dismissively mocked (in Afterschoolâ€™s few scenes of learning, for example, shallow focus is employed to abstract the teacher into a meaningless blur) despite its integrality, for good or ill, to the formative adolescent experience. Adapted in collaboration with Cantet by FranĂ§ois BĂ©gaudeau from his own novel Entre les murs (â€śBetween the Wallsâ€ť)â€”and based on his own experiences as a teacherâ€”The Class is largely comprised of quasi-improvised classroom sessions led by FranĂ§ois Martin (BĂ©gaudeau) in a French class at a rough and tumble school at the fringes of Paris in the 20th Arrondissement. Cantet follows the frequently digressive paths of FranĂ§oisâ€™s frustrating, humorous, contentious, and sometimes violent interactions with his studentsâ€”a wide multicultural subsection of French, Turkish, Chinese, Moroccan, African, and Caribbean nonprofessionals acting in roles based on themselvesâ€”by capturing action with multiple, ceaselessly moving cameras, tightly framing the students and FranĂ§ois in their small, claustrophobic room as the teacher attempts (often in vain) to impart lessons on grammar tenses and autobiographical writing.
While balancing spontaneity and structure, The Class coheres into a rough narrative in which FranĂ§ois must contend with the disruptive behavior of Souleymane (Franck KeĂŻta), an African student on the verge of being expelled after he accidentally hits a girl with his backpack during a classroom altercation with the teacher. Yet, thankfully, the action never slips into Dangerous Minds territoryâ€”BĂ©gaudeau and Cantet make sure to pay as much attention to the telling details of classroom dynamics as to the overall storyline. For instance, while seeming to innocently create a fictional â€śBillâ€ť to demonstrate the usage of a word, FranĂ§ois instigates a debate about his oblivious adherence to â€śwhitey namesâ€ť over ethnic ones. The girl who brings up this point, Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani), is whiteâ€”FranĂ§oisâ€™s approach is to never back down from his students, and he calls her out on the irony. And when he begins a lesson on the imperfect indicative, FranĂ§oisâ€™s students wonder when theyâ€™ll ever use such highfalutin language: only old and bourgeois people use it, they complain. Cantetâ€™s film is very much about class and ideology, about the gap between mostly white teachers from middle-class backgrounds upholding a classical curriculum for adolescents, many from working-class immigrant families. Aside for a teachersâ€™ lounge rant about the shocking conduct of students from one of FranĂ§oisâ€™ frustrated colleagues, The Classâ€™s statement about the changing face of France and an older generationâ€™s adherence to possibly outmoded strategies to engage it is studied by way of contact, not didacticism.
The Classâ€™s portrayal of FranĂ§ois is also unique among school dramasâ€”instead of caricature or encomium, the film chooses to depict him as not simply tough, but often weak, powerless, or else downright unprofessional. Itâ€™s incredible how much screen time consists of FranĂ§ois losing control of the classroom, unable to maintain order and succumbing to his studentsâ€™ tantrums and digressions. One minute students will be presenting their assigned self-portraits, the next a fight will break out over the supremacy of national soccer teams, and FranĂ§ois can barely get word in edgewise. Cantetâ€™s direction smoothly and effectively combines the filmâ€™s improvised takes so they gracefully follow the stream of classroom conversation and chaos. Toward the end of the semester FranĂ§ois castigates Esmeralda and her friend, who proved themselves incapable of serving as class representatives the night before in a meeting with teachers where they giggled and gossiped as the faculty evaluated their classmates. He lets slip the insult â€śskanks,â€ť producing gasps. But more remarkable is FranĂ§oisâ€™s defense. When confronting his students in the courtyard later in the day, he feigns ignorance of the wordâ€™s true meaning, and tries to deflect the incident by playing up the greater importance of Souleymaneâ€™s outburst. Under pressure, FranĂ§ois proves a coward.
The last scene concludes the film on a provocatively ambiguous note. After a shameful meeting between the teachers, Souleymane, and the studentâ€™s mother, who doesnâ€™t speak a word of French, Francoisâ€™ idealistic notions about the education systemâ€™s inclusive rehabilitation of even the worst studentsâ€”notions contested by a stricter colleagueâ€”are dashed. All thatâ€™s remains is his teaching, and in the final class of the semester he receives conformation of the effectiveness of his methods when he asks his students what theyâ€™ve learned, including some surprises about his studentsâ€™ intellectual curiosity (the consistently rude Esmeralda causes him to do a double take when she reluctantly reveals sheâ€™s read â€śThe Republicâ€ť). But then a student tells him she hasnâ€™t learned anything, and Cantetâ€™s last shot is of an empty classroom as teachers play soccer with students outside.
What weâ€™re left with is the ongoing, unresolved process of trial and error in which education can equally succeed and fail, and in this sense the filmâ€™s thematic integrity neatly matches its visual and structural design. If The Class has any weak point itâ€™s in the kids-say-the-darnedest-things repartee from the students, some of it genuinely funny (before Esmeralda admits to understanding Plato she responds to FranĂ§oisâ€™s dismay that she retained no knowledge over the course of the semester with, â€śIâ€™m the living proofâ€ť), but much of it grating and indulgent. But at least itâ€™s true to life, truer than so much of the zombified modeling that passes for adolescent behavior in contemporary films, what with screenwriters stuffing smarmy, overworked catchphrases into their charactersâ€™ mouths (Juno) or else trying to convince us that adolescents never brag, spazz, or even awkwardly announce their individuality through music, language, or fashion (Afterschool). The Class dares to treat its pubescent subjects with some semblance of respect instead of condescension, with BĂ©gaudeau and Cantet listening to them rather than using them for their own agenda. That The Classâ€™s genuine compassion might get the backlash treatment for being unfashionably accessibleâ€”while dreck like American Teen does its damage at the multiplexâ€”means the teenager might still have a long way to go before he/she is taken seriously in the cinema.