Starring François Bégaudeau, Franck Keita, Nassim Amrabt
Directed by Laurent Cantet
The French film The Class may be rough going for those prone to anxiety over difficult, even impossible odds. Often unbearably frustrating, this 2008 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner charts the Sisyphian progress of junior high school French teacher François Marin (played by real-life teacher and author François Bégaudeau) in an inner city Parisian school.
Perhaps “progress” isn’t the best word. François struggles against a tide of lethargy, disinterest, hostility, laziness, misunderstanding, arrogance, and ego. And — occasionally — a desire to learn. His students (played by actual students who workshopped the script with director Laurent Cantet) are a cross section of contemporary French society. They are African and Caribbean boys who sport the hip-hop attire and attitude of inner-city American teens, Arabs, and Chinese immigrants. Many refuse to identify themselves as French, but instead cling to an identity defined by sports teams, music, and their parents, or their own country of origin.
Unlike immigrant children of another era, many are utterly hostile to the notion of acclimation. And so François also serves as a totem, to the students, of the French cultural superiority they so vigorously dislike. They challenge his authority on generational but also on cultural grounds, wondering what an older, white, native Frenchman could possibly teach them about life.
The Class is as far from the inspirational Dead Poet’s Society or Dangerous Minds classroom drama as one could imagine, grounded in reality rather than Hollywood feel-good. Director Cantet (Human Resources, Time Out), craves realism, especially the realism of today’s racially and economically-divided world. His source material is François Bégaudeau’s own teacher’s autobiography, Entre les Murs (Between the Walls). In The Class, we tend to see more difficulty than triumph.
But it is also clear something keeps these teachers coming back. When the school year begins and the new teachers introduce themselves to the veterans, several allude to previous careers in the suburbs with disdain in their voice. Paris is where the action is, it is clear, the volatile, combustive laboratory for teachers determined to make a difference.
But real life intrudes in the kind of pat resolutions often seen in classroom dramas. In The Class, learning is squeezed in between the combative, surly, confrontational, confused attitude of François’ students. He is a remarkably creative teacher, using even the kids’ obnoxious challenges and taunts as an opening to make his points and emphasize his lessons. At its best The Class demonstrates the evolving, organic nature of teaching as a kind of improvisational theater: something that must bend and adapt and follow the lead of the students. François’ classroom is a remarkable dynamic thing, changeable and fluid, a metaphor for the flux and chaos of contemporary urban society. The use of a handheld camera and of nonprofessional actors is a further effort to enhance the verité effect.
But the odds against François are tremendous. The kids are not impressed by authority figures and push back constantly, questioning and goading, refusing to read assignments or challenging François on his sexual orientation. The amount of knowledge François is actually able to impart is minute: instead he is a negotiator, a disciplinarian, and in a surprising dramatic turn in The Class, even a villain. When François’ frustration with his students causes him to say something controversial to two of his female students, all hell breaks loose. An academic committee is convened, a hearing occurs, and the full weight of the school’s bureaucratic apparatus comes down to crush both students and teacher.
Despite a noble desire to plumb the real racial, class, and generational politics of a contemporary classroom, The Class may strike some as unbearably prolonged, and at times, stagnant exercise. There is an airless quality to the film, undoubtedly due to its setting almost entirely inside the classroom, with occasional jaunts to the teacher’s lounge or an equally claustrophobic playground hemmed in by concrete walls. At a certain point, The Class begins to lose some of its energy. Spending time in its company can prove wearying. Perhaps the film demonstrates a little too well the rigor and exhaustion inherent in teaching.