In a tough Parisian neighborhood self-segregated by racial and cultural divides, a teacher, François Marin (played by the teacher, François Bégaudeau, who adapted his own book for the screen), tries to connect with his students and get them to connect with each other by leading them into intellectual exploration from issues which impact their own lives. Over the course of the school year, François will see one promising kid beaten down by the system, another jeopardized by his parents' immigration status and be challenged by many in "The Class."
Director Laurent Cantet ("Time Out," "Heading South"), who has made two films reflecting on the trials of the workplace, now turns his attention to the system that it supposed to prepare today's youth to go out into it. His documentary-like drama is akin to an urban counterpoint to the more idyllic, country school room documented in 2002's "To Be and To Have," injected with some "To Sir, With Love" and a little bit of "Freedom Writers." This 2008 Palme D’Or winner and France's entry for Best Foreign Language Film is an extraordinary example of what can be accomplished with non-actors working improvisationally.
The film begins by introducing us to the school's teachers and administrators, as many of them are being introduced to each other. There is a strong solidarity among them, even as they have different approaches to dealing with some very tough charges. Disciplinary measures are the biggest topic of debate.
In Marin's class lives a microcosm of Parisian society. There are the African immigrants who vie with their Hispanic counterparts. There are Asians who are quiet and girls who are forceful and one lone Goth who keeps to himself. Marin walks a fine line trying to provoke these kids towards the knowledge and intellectual curiosity that will prepare them for life while still holding the reins of his class and keeping the environment nonthreatening. His job is shown to be rewarding, such as when he encourages class troublemaker Souleymane (Franck Keïta) when he produces original work, and frustrating, when that same student goes before a school disciplinary board which Marin can only try to influence. There is the surprise of a female student, Khoumba (Rachel Régulier), usually a bright contributor, shutting down and becoming insubordinate while another, the usually bossy, mouthy Sandra (Esméralda Ouertani), shocks with the revelation that she's read Plato's "The Republic" of her own volition. These kids step in and out of stereotype, as does François, rattling even the audience's cage when he says two female class delegates 'acted like skanks,' upending our judgement of him and creating a rift with his class which he must work politically to repair.
Cantet and Bégaudeau began their casting search at the Françoise Dolto Junior High in Paris' 20th arrondissement, and, while they did not film there, chose their entire class of twenty-five from fifty who attended workshops. The school's counselor and assistant principal were also cast in the movie and Cantet gets not one false note from any of them. These kids are given ideas, the same ideas Bégaudeau introduced to his class and wrote about, and then they fly with them, using their own lingo and backgrounds to inform their dialogue. Cantet, like his author, cuts away from the obvious down times that occur in any classroom and shapes his film like a bouncing ball, one event leading into another. The film feels incredibly natural and was filmed with a multi-camera technique devised to capture the classroom without intruding upon it. It is a bustling, boisterous work dotted with quieter moments - the reaction to a teacher melting down in a break room, the reaction of a class to bad news pertaining to one of their own.
Throughout the history of film, there has been the tale of the inspirational teacher, from the hallowed halls of British boarding schools to the rough and tumble of the ghetto. Cantet and Bégaudeau give us more of a slice of reality, a classroom of injustices, small triumphs and impasses led by a passionate but not infallible man trying to work within the system. "The Class" is simply one of the best of its class.
French teacher Francois Marin (Francois Begaudeau) prepares for the new school year at a middle school in a tough Parisian suburb. He and his fellow teachers are both hopeful and skeptical about their new wards, 13-year olds from a mix of cultures ranging from Moroccan to Chinese, but are ready to do their best. Francois maintains an even balance in his classroom but the sometimes-difficult behavior of his adolescent wards will test his enthusiasm for “The Class.”
Utilizing real teachers and students as its cast, “The Class” is a richly done, in-depth look into the French public school system. Director Laurent Cantet, who brought us the terrific “Time Out” in 2001, creates a real view of a French classroom, the dedication of teacher Francois and the intelligent curiosity of his students, using the Francois’s class as a microcosm of the Franco education infrastructure. Teacher-turned-novelist Francois Begaudeau wrote the screenplay (adapting his book with Cantet and Robin Campillo) and stars as Monsieur Marin, lending further verisimilitude to this insightful film.
Shot in documentary style by Pierre Milon, Cantet uses the roving camera to put the viewer in the classroom with teacher and students. Francois challenges his budding scholars to think about and understand their adopted language. The interchanges that take place do not feel artificial in the least as the students give as good as they get, challenging their teacher and, intelligently, questioning the social mores and prejudices of French society. Cantet and company could not have hired professional actors to do a better job in showing these teens as real people.
Hollywood, when it explores the realm of secondary education, usually gives its scholastic wards clichéd roles that pigeon hole them into stereotypes. “The Class” is fresh and believable and its students act like real teenagers. The film is France’s entry into the Oscar best foreign film category and is a strong contender. It is one of those rare film experiences that I wanted to continue when the end credits rolled. Still, Cantet makes it a complete and satisfying work. I give it an A.
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