In 'The Class,' A Struggle Toward Knowledge
- Director: Laurent Cantet
- Genre: Docudrama
- Running Time: 128 minutes
Not rated: rough language, teenage hostility.
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).