“The Class,” Laurent Cantet’s very fine film about an academic year in a life of a teacher and his students at an inner city Parisian middle school, gets its structure and its strength from limitations. The camera doesn’t wander outside of the walls of the school; it seldom leaves the classroom, the only meaningful place of intersection between the worlds of FranÃ§ois Marin, imperfect instructor, and his boisterously mixed bag of multicultural pupils. When a student departs for the day, or summer, or forever, he or she might as well be oceans away, news of homelife trickling back in through schoolmates or other teachers or, just as obtusely, from the parents in their rare pilgrimages to the building for state-of-things meetings. Marin isn’t going to make house calls or bail kids out of jail in the middle of the night or wrest crack pipes from their blackened fingers on street corners and haul them off for a stint of DIY rehab in his guest room. Teaching is his calling, but it’s also his job, and, like anyone else, he gets frustrated, tired, has off days and needs to sneak a secret cigarette in the emptied cafeteria.
“The Class” is shot in a loose, multi-camera, doc-inspired style, using improvisation and a cast of mainly non-professional actors, including FranÃ§ois BÃ©gaudeau, the screenwriter and former teacher who wrote the semi-autobiographical novel on which the film is based, as Marin. All these things make the film sound awfully austere, but it’s not at all — “The Class” is funny and confrontational and has a swing to its step, and sometimes seems more than the cameras can keep up with as they wander over the faces of the students or linger on Marin as he struggles to answer a particularly tough question. Those students — Chinese, Moroccan, Malian, Arabic, white, sullen or outspoken, aggressive or withdrawn — are more than just a conveniently rainbowed collection. They’re an open representation of New France, and a vivid challenge to Marin, calling out his tendency to use only Caucasian names when writing example sentences on the chalkboard (“AÃ¯ssata,” one insists, would be a better choice), and questioning why they have to learn an archaically formal tense that’s all but useless. Marin, instead of resting on his authority, actually turns these remonstrations into dialogues, and yields when he should. Less laudably, his technique of engaging with the class sometimes finds him baiting the students or talking down to them, and, in the slip of judgment that leads to the mini-crisis that’s the closest the film has to a plot, referring to the behavior of two girls as that of “skanks.”
If “The Class” were just meant as an antidote to the long course of ridiculous inspirational classroom movies, the shape it takes would be enough. But Cantet’s film is also resolutely evenhanded with the way its school’s determinedly democratic processes can fail. Having student representatives at a staff-wide evaluation of the class members backfires, and a disciplinary hearing about a possible expulsion leaves a boy too angry and distant to defend himself. And at the very end of the year, a quiet girl comes up and confesses that she hasn’t learned anything at all, and that she’s afraid she’s going to be tracked for the vocational school and a lifetime in a lower economic bracket, and Marin has nothing more encouraging to offer her than that she has one more year left. The film doesn’t close off with updates of the fates of the students — it’s not “based on a true story.” In the best way, it doesn’t feel like a story at all.
“The Class” will open in New York and L.A. December 12th. For more coverage of the New York Film Festival, click here.
[Photo: “The Class,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2008]