With its quasi-documentary approach and complete lack of recognizable cast, Laurent Cantet’s The Class seemed an unlikely contender for the prestigious Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which coincidentally hadn’t seen a French film walk away with the top prize in twenty-one years. Yet the Sean Penn-led jury unanimously decided that this small, topical film set in a Parisian junior high school was worthy of the festival’s highest honor.
For the most part, American critical response was positive, though not terribly enthusiastic. Several critics compared the film unfavorably to season four of The Wire, which I happened to be deeply immersed in at the time. Easily the best of the show’s five year run, it was difficult for me to let go of that comparison, and as a result my expectations for the film were significantly lowered. Having now seen it, I can confidently say that any likening of the two is, at best, superficial.
Based on François Bégaudeau’s book Entre les Murs (Between the Walls), a fictionalized account of his experience as a junior high school teacher in Paris, The Class traverses an entire school year from the teacher’s perspective, played here by Bégaudeau himself. Neither an indictment of the French educational system nor a critique of today’s youth, Cantet instead chooses to focus on the intricate details of the student-teacher relationship, and how that relationship is changing in an increasingly multi-culti France.
Built on a series of year-long improvisations between Bégaudeau and the students (all non-actors), The Class eschews traditional narrative in favor of extended classroom scenes that are both shot and play out as documentary. Cantet almost constantly packs his frame, drawing us closer to the immediacy and at-times claustrophobic nature of the classroom environment. That the film never leaves the school grounds only enhances its non-fiction sensibility.
Bégaudeau’s classroom is a snapshot of contemporary France – a melting-pot of nationalities and languages where the question of cultural identification is no longer cut-and-dry, for though most of the students were raised in France, few consider themselves as such. (This is the sort of France that the Front National worries about.) Much like Abdel Kechiche’s L’Esquive, which also addressed the changing cultural attitudes of French youth, The Class is a film rooted in the power of language. An early scene finds the students complaining about the difficult words the teacher uses – “Austrian”, “henceforth” – as well as the “whitey” names he assigns to characters in his grammar examples. Others go so far as to consider some of the French tenses bourgeois. At the same time many of the kids have come to accept their position as “l’autre” in French society, and don’t speak up for fear of being tased or shipped off to Guantanamo.
Unlike the American school film, which often posits the teacher as the savior for troubled youth, Cantet and Bégaudeau are democratic in their criticisms of both parties – for though the students possess an attention span of about fifteen seconds and are often disrespectful, the teacher is just as guilty of arrogance and occasional condescension. In many ways the film is a Foucaultian study of the power relations between teacher and students, and how their sense of self-identification is, in part, determined by their interactions with the teacher – though not as an individual, but as a representative of a social institution responsible for creating (and maintaining) that power structure. As Foucault points out, power stems from discourse – in this case from teacher to student – yet Bégaudeau learns that there’s a fragility to this relationship, and that strategies and methods must be flexible and adaptable, for where there is power there is resistance. Traditional models no longer apply, and societal and cultural changes need to be considered when addressing the paradigm shift.
It is an act of resistance that triggers a series of events that make up the film’s final third. Frustrated by the behavior of two female students taking notes at a teachers meeting, Bégaudeau foolishly tells them they acted like skanks. Taking advantage of this moment of weakness, Souleymane (a problem student) enters into a heated argument with the teacher, and accidentally bloodies another student with his backpack. This leads to a lengthy bureaucratic process (statements, interviews, trial) that may result in Souleymane’s expulsion. Yet Cantet is less interested in the outcome of the drama as he is in the causality, particularly in the breakdown of the teacher-student relationship as well as the limitations of resistance.
What The Class does extremely well (and with great subtlety) is to question the purpose and function of the education system, and the role it plays in the development (mental/social/etc.) of a child. This is evinced in one of the film’s final scenes in which a student (quiet for most of the year) tells Bégaudeau in private that she learned nothing during the year. “But you passed all your exams,” he tells her, somewhat confused. She once again explains that she didn’t actually learn anything before quietly exiting the classroom. Cantet offers no clues or explanations, and wisely ends the film on this note of ambiguity.
Though a work of fiction, The Class is a remarkably honest film, and one that portrays kids as neither precocious nor precious, nor as a mouthpiece for adult ideas and words. Though it (obviously) addresses issues about the French education system, there’s something surprisingly universal about it, and much of the film will resonate with any parent of a school-aged child.