by Michael Joshua Rowin
Dir. Laurent Cantet, France, Sony Pictures Classics
Despite—or perhaps because of—its Palme d’Or win at Cannes earlier this year, word on the street is that Laurent Cantet’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 institution’s inability to adapt to the country’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 NYFF’s inexplicably selected Afterschool, a film set in a similar milieu that indulges in callow luridness and aesthetic superficiality, I’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 movies—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 Afterschool’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 François Bégaudeau from his own novel Entre les murs (“Between the Walls”)—and based on his own experiences as a teacher—The Class is largely comprised of quasi-improvised classroom sessions led by François Martin (Bégaudeau) 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 François’s frustrating, humorous, contentious, and sometimes violent interactions with his students—a wide multicultural subsection of French, Turkish, Chinese, Moroccan, African, and Caribbean nonprofessionals acting in roles based on themselves—by capturing action with multiple, ceaselessly moving cameras, tightly framing the students and François 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 François must contend with the disruptive behavior of Souleymane (Franck Keïta), 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 territory—Bégaudeau 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 “Bill” to demonstrate the usage of a word, François instigates a debate about his oblivious adherence to “whitey names” over ethnic ones. The girl who brings up this point, Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani), is white—François’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, François’s students wonder when they’ll ever use such highfalutin language: only old and bourgeois people use it, they complain. Cantet’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 teachers’ lounge rant about the shocking conduct of students from one of François’ frustrated colleagues, The Class’s statement about the changing face of France and an older generation’s adherence to possibly outmoded strategies to engage it is studied by way of contact, not didacticism.
The Class’s portrayal of François is also unique among school dramas—instead of caricature or encomium, the film chooses to depict him as not simply tough, but often weak, powerless, or else downright unprofessional. It’s incredible how much screen time consists of François losing control of the classroom, unable to maintain order and succumbing to his students’ 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 François can barely get word in edgewise. Cantet’s direction smoothly and effectively combines the film’s improvised takes so they gracefully follow the stream of classroom conversation and chaos. Toward the end of the semester François 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 “skanks,” producing gasps. But more remarkable is François’s defense. When confronting his students in the courtyard later in the day, he feigns ignorance of the word’s true meaning, and tries to deflect the incident by playing up the greater importance of Souleymane’s outburst. Under pressure, François proves a coward.
The last scene concludes the film on a provocatively ambiguous note. After a shameful meeting between the teachers, Souleymane, and the student’s mother, who doesn’t speak a word of French, Francois’ idealistic notions about the education system’s inclusive rehabilitation of even the worst students—notions contested by a stricter colleague—are dashed. All that’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 they’ve learned, including some surprises about his students’ intellectual curiosity (the consistently rude Esmeralda causes him to do a double take when she reluctantly reveals she’s read “The Republic”). But then a student tells him she hasn’t learned anything, and Cantet’s last shot is of an empty classroom as teachers play soccer with students outside.
What we’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 film’s thematic integrity neatly matches its visual and structural design. If The Class has any weak point it’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 François’s dismay that she retained no knowledge over the course of the semester with, “I’m the living proof”), but much of it grating and indulgent. But at least it’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 characters’ 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 Bégaudeau and Cantet listening to them rather than using them for their own agenda. That The Class’s genuine compassion might get the backlash treatment for being unfashionably accessible—while dreck like American Teen does its damage at the multiplex—means the teenager might still have a long way to go before he/she is taken seriously in the cinema.