Review: 'The Class'
Docudrama superbly explores the interplay of a teacher and his racially mixed students in Paris classroom.
Why is it that so few movies set in classrooms ring true? Is it because the filmmakers have blocked out their school years and can't bear to relive them?Skip to next paragraph
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Laurent Cantet's "The Class," which takes place over a year in a multiethnic Parisian public school, captures the hectic, giddy, tortuous, inspiring maelstrom of the classroom experience better than any other movie I've ever seen. (It won the Palme d'Or in Cannes last year and is an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film.) By comparison, such movies as "Dead Poets Society" and "Dangerous Minds" are so much child's play.
Cantet is one of the best directors working in Europe today. His finest film, "Time Out," about a man who pretends to his wife that he still has a job to go to each morning, is a tragicomic masterpiece (and particularly relevant for today's financially strapped world). Although he had long been interested in making a movie about classroom education, it was not until Cantet read a 2006 novel by a French schoolteacher, François Bégaudeau, that the project crystallized. Bégaudeau wrote about the Paris public school where he teaches French. Cantet adapted the book with him and co-writer Robin Campillo and then cast Bégaudeau himself, a charismatic, 30-ish live wire, in the lead.
Bégaudeau's François Marin is obviously a variation on himself, but, at the same time, he is clearly giving a performance. The students in his classroom, as well as the school's other teachers, are likewise the real deal. The script was worked up communally, after many rehearsals, in much the same way that the British director Mike Leigh operates.
The freshness of "The Class" is doubtless due to this bedrock authenticity. But don't expect a dreary docudrama. Almost every performer is a nonactor, but you'd never know it. Cantet understands how to film a story in ways that are so immediate you'd swear you were watching a documentary, and yet there's a shaping to the scenes, to the performances, and the ideas, that is rigorously dramatic. Cantet achieves his effects by shooting with three portable high-def cameras at once – one camera focused on the teacher, another on the students, the third on the overall scene. In this way he is able to capture the quicksilver nuances in the material. This explains why the movie has such a marvelous off-the-cuff quality. Cantet carefully blocks and scripts his scenes and then allows chance to take over. It's not only Leigh to whom this film is a kind of auteurist homage. I imagine Robert Altman would also have recognized a fellow kinsman.