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?
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.
François is a big booster of the Socratic method, and he is constantly needling his students to examine their own beliefs on everything from racial politics to sexuality. And they needle him back. As a white teacher in a class predominately filled with French-born students of African or Caribbean descent, François is keenly aware that more is going on in his schoolroom than just geography lessons and algebra. The students challenge him, they taunt him, and he is smart enough to recognize that this is a part of the learning process, too.
Cantet doesn't sentimentalize this process. When François uncharacteristically loses his temper and calls one of his students a "skank," he is called to account for it by the school authorities. Two girls, Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani) and her best friend Khoumba (Rachel Regulier), give François a particularly hard time. Khoumba believes, falsely, that François holds a grudge against her, and try as he might to convince her otherwise, she sinks deeper and deeper into a stony funk.
Cantet understands how students mythologize and demonize teachers, how they react to them as surrogate parents, as saviors. Is it any wonder that, for some insecure high-schoolers – in other words, all high-schoolers – the slightest hint of disaffection from a teacher has a resounding impact?
The most powerful moments in this 129-minute movie come near the end, when a rebellious Malian student, Souleymane (Franck Keita), is threatened with expulsion even though this almost certainly means he will be deported back to Africa. The students take his side against François, who is riven.
Cantet, throughout, takes no sides, and this is the beauty of "The Class." To call his film a piece of social commentary is to limit its achievement. It's a multicultural human drama, a microcosm of our world that unavoidably touches on the future. Plus, it's a whole lot of fun. Wherever you were schooled, in public schools or private, in the slums or in the suburbs, you will recognize yourself in this film and laugh and beam and cower. Grade: A (Rated PG-13 for language.)