The Class (2008) dir. Lauren Cantet
Starring: François Bégaudeau, Nassim Amrabt, Carl Nanor, Franck Keita, Esméralda Ouertani
Laurent Cantet’s “The Class”, based on actor/writer Francois Begaudeau’s experiences as a middle school teacher in urban Paris is so authentic to inner city classroom life it’s indistinguishable from a documentary. Many films try for the documentary look, feel and tone and not even the Dardennes come near Cantet’s invisible realistic drama. We appear to be watching a new form of cinema reality we’ve never seen before. I've seen the film twice, and while I gave the film the benefit of the doubt for it's narrative banality, I have to take a more cynical point of view the second time round.
Cantet opens with introductions of the teachers to each other. One of them is Francois who teaches French. Francois is never characterized as righteous; he’s flawed and as vulnerable as many of the students.
Over the course of the school year we watch how Francois’ teaching methods both inspire and come into conflict with the students. When he’s put into a difficult situation he always maintains his professionalism but Begaudeau’s fine performance reveals defenseless weaknesses that threaten his reputation and career.
In the first half Cantet is a fly-on-the-wall in the classroom as we watch the many lengthy discussions of subjective adjective and verb conjugation. The kids interact with Francois with the attention deficit disorder we’d expect from 13 years olds. Gradually interclassroom conflicts arise not related to schoolwork as a number of students standout from the bunch.
There's a conscious attempt not to become “Dead Poet’s Society”, “The Blackboard Jungle”, “Dangerous Minds” and “To Sir, With Love”. And thus, any temptation to manipulate reality for the sake of traditional cinematic plotting is avoided.
So as admirable as "The Class" is, maintaining the integrity of its characters at all times, the lack of any cinema conventions is also frustrating. It doesn't take more than 15mins to establish credibility with his world, at which point the film is ripe for a plot point. We never get it. The film finally becomes focused when the young and angry black male Souleymane challenges Francois’s off the cuff slur to one of his fellow students. Unfortunately it takes an hour and a half to get here.
And so what starts out as documentary observance finally develops into a sharp battle of wills and wits. The aloof giggling and gossiping schoolyard children become powerful enemies. It’s a worthy journey but one which require much much patience to get there. Enjoy.