'The Class' Offers Lessons In Cultural Identity

Film critic David Edelstein reviews The Class, the Oscar-nominated French film about a high school class in an impoverished Paris neighborhood.

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TERRY GROSS, host:

The French film, "The Class," has opened in the U.S. In May, it won the top prize at the CAN Film Festival, and now it's nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language feature. "The Class" is a semi-improvised look inside a high school in a diverse working-class Paris neighborhood. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: The classroom scenes in Laurent Cantet's remarkable film, "The Class," feel as if they're happening in real time. They're not. They don't last 50 minutes, but in movie time they go on long enough to slow down your narrative expectations and make you feel how fraught the classroom dynamic can be, how teaching can be a high-wire act, a struggle for power, an endless series of negotiations.

This is not the high school of sitcoms or Hollywood films. The scenes have the rawness of a documentary. The film is based on a memoir by Francois Begaudeau, who taught high school in an impoverished Paris neighborhood to multi-racial students, many of them children of African and Asian immigrants who could barely speak French.

Begaudeau plays - very convincingly - a version of himself. And in the first scene, it's the beginning of the year, and he greets his fellow teachers at orientation. One teacher scans a new colleague student list. This one is trouble, he says. This one is bad. This one's nice. This one, watch out for. Then they all take a deep breath and enter the arena.

The teens playing Begaudeau's students are non-actors. Their scene's partly improvised, and at times it seems as if they're trying to throw Begaudeau off his game for real. He writes on the blackboard, and a student makes him stop and define a word, half out of genuine curiosity, half out of insolence. The trim, buoyant Begaudeau is an idealist, and instead of expressing annoyance, he patiently answers questions and then tugs his pupils back to the lesson at hand.

When he finally does get a rhythm going, an especially surly student interrupts to ask if it's true what they say in the yard, that Begaudeau likes men. And so, the teacher has to set aside his plan and say, first, what would be wrong with that? And then, no, it isn't true. And by then, the lesson has been derailed and there are snickers all around.

When he asserts his authority, some of the teens pipe up that he's a white male from a more prosperous class, and he can't possibly relate to their perspectives. It's no wonder that when Begaudeau goes back to the faculty lounge several of his colleagues appear shell-shocked. These kids don't deserve to be educated, they say. They're like animals in heat. Let them rot in their dead-end, low-class jobs.

"The Class" is shaped as a test of Begaudeau's liberalism. How long can he maintain his equilibrium? He tells his colleagues that it's the job of the teacher to bring kids out. And the amazing thing is that he does. What finally rouses most of his students is an assignment to write self-portraits. Suddenly, outpour their hopes and fears about their bodies, their families, their struggles to adapt in a country that hasn't made them welcome. For a brief spell, they seem younger, more open and ready to learn.

But just when you're getting a warm, Utopian feeling, something bad happens. An obnoxious girl named Esmarelda(ph) stirs up trouble. And an unruly African student named Sulamane(ph) has one outburst too many. Without spelling things out, I'll say that Begaudeau loses his empathy and becomes defensive. I'll say the hero of the movie threatens to become its bad guy.

Some critics have railed that Cantet condescends towards these kids, that the class doesn't spotlight students who long to be educated, that it can be used to justify the system's failures. I'll concede the point, but there's a larger message.

The film suggests it's not just racists or reactionaries we need to worry about. It's also genuine idealists who are finally worn down. That's why those real-time classroom scenes are so startling. They show you that at least until the system can be changed, the battles will be moment to moment.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. He reviewed "The Class." You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

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In 'The Class,' A Struggle Toward Knowledge

Francois Begaudeau as Francois Marin i i

Ain't Misbehavin': Francois Marin (Francois Begaudeau) struggles to control his unruly students, who are assuredly interested in learning — just not always from their textbooks. Pierre Milon/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Pierre Milon/Sony Pictures Classics
Francois Begaudeau as Francois Marin

Ain't Misbehavin': Francois Marin (Francois Begaudeau) struggles to control his unruly students, who are assuredly interested in learning — just not always from their textbooks.

Pierre Milon/Sony Pictures Classics

The Class

  • Director: Laurent Cantet
  • Genre: Docudrama
  • Running Time: 128 minutes

Not rated: rough language, teenage hostility.

(Recommended).

Dalla Doucoure as Dalla and Damien Gomes as Damien i i

Language Barrier: Set in an immigrant-heavy, multiracial neighborhood, Francois' students don't hesitate to push back — rejecting grammar lessons in favor of a cross-cultural patois. Pierre Milon/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Pierre Milon/Sony Pictures Classics
Dalla Doucoure as Dalla and Damien Gomes as Damien

Language Barrier: Set in an immigrant-heavy, multiracial neighborhood, Francois' students don't hesitate to push back — rejecting grammar lessons in favor of a cross-cultural patois.

Pierre Milon/Sony Pictures Classics
Laura Baquela i i

The film features actual Parisian students, and though Francois has the lead role, the real focus is — as the title indicates — the class. Pierre Milon/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Pierre Milon/Sony Pictures Classics
Laura Baquela

The film features actual Parisian students, and though Francois has the lead role, the real focus is — as the title indicates — the class.

Pierre Milon/Sony Pictures Classics

French cinema is known for characters who play, whether at love, crime or thought. Filmmaker Laurent Cantet, however, is more interested in work.

The director of powerful movies about union conflicts (Human Resources) and unemployment (Time Out), Cantet has now turned to junior high school, which he treats every bit as seriously as the factory floor. In The Class, a teacher labors to instruct, and his class strives to learn — although not necessarily what's in their textbooks.

Set in a working-class, immigrant-heavy Paris neighborhood, The Class vividly depicts a school similar to some in the urban U.S.: A lanky young man who couldn't intimidate if he wanted to, teacher Francois Marin tries to engage his boisterous, ethnically diverse students in a friendly manner. Yet he also attempts to keep the lessons on track and to set limits on the kids' sometimes over-familiar banter.

Early in the film, Francois reacts calmly when one of his principal antagonists tauntingly asks if the teacher "likes men." Months later, a less detached Francois gets himself in trouble by insulting two girls in his class. (According to the subtitles, he calls them "skanks," although that has a harsher connotation than the French "petasse," which might be translated "bimbo.")

The struggle between teacher and students wanders into arcane points of French grammar, but it's really about cultural identity. Francois tells his charges they need to speak and write properly, but they prefer a youth-culture patois that incorporates Arabic and hip-hop. Regular French, the kids say, is medieval and bourgeois.

It's not an abstract argument, because many of the students are alienated by more than their newly pulsing hormones. While one girl denounces the prospect of vocational school, that's not the worst possible fate; over the course of the year, a Chinese boy sees his mother deported as an illegal immigrant, and another pupil is suspended, knowing that his father will ship him back to Mali if he fails in school.

The Class was inspired by teacher Francois Begaudeau's autobiographical novel, and Cantet went right to the source: He cast Begaudeau as the teacher and filled the classroom with actual Parisian students. The script was developed through improvisation and shot documentary style, with three hand-held cameras capturing the interplay from one side of the room.

Cantet's study is one of several remarkable recent French films about school, but differs from its predecessors in never leaving the building. We encounter Francois and his students only as they encounter each other, without backstories to explain their behavior. The battle is here, the director seems to be saying, and must be understood here.

A leftist who has a high-school-age child, Cantet is sympathetic toward the students. Yet the young performers in this movie don't reflect the filmmaker's agenda, or any adult's. While playing fictionalized roles, the kids create characters whose doubts, frustrations and outbursts feel altogether real.

Although Francois is the central character, The Class is an apt title. The movie is about the students, and has the outlook of a smart teenager: It doesn't have many answers, but it certainly has lots of troublesome questions. (Recommended).

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