The Class isn't content to merely sidestep the clichés we've come to associate with classroom dramas; it rejects, deconstructs, and ultimately subverts them. If you can sit through a few mind-numbing discussions of French grammar, the reward is an increasingly rare experience: the pleasure of watching a genuinely unpredictable movie.
The Class is based on Entre les murs (Between the Walls), François Bégaudeau's autobiographical novel about his experiences as a teacher at Paris's Francoise Dolto middle school. Director Laurent Cantet opted for a cinema verite approach to his adaptation, using a cast composed almost entirely of non-professional actors.
Bégaudeau stars as François Marin, a marginally fictionalized version of himself. To fill the seats in Marin's onscreen classroom, Cantet recruited kids from a local inner-city junior high school. For a full year prior to filming, Cantet engaged his unlikely cast in weekly improvisational workshops and acting classes, where they worked through scenarios suggested by the source novel and a similarly themed screenplay Cantet had been writing prior to meeting Bégaudeau. The result is a wonderfully, sometimes shockingly, honest account of one academic year at a struggling Parisian school.
Shot with three high-definition cameras and a crew of only 15, The Class takes place almost entirely at an ethnically diverse junior high school in a low-income Paris suburb. Once Marin arrives for the first day of the school year, the cameras never leave the school grounds. Most of the action takes place in Marin's classroom, where the school year unfolds as a never-ending conflict broken down into daily skirmishes, shifting alliances, and uneasy truces. The teens delight in their nearly constant attempts to goad Marin into various verbal confrontations, but he isn't so easily baited; when one student interrupts a grammar lesson to ask Marin if he "likes men," the teacher uses the question as a chance to challenge the boy's homophobia.
Marin's class is comprised mostly of the children of African, Caribbean, and Asian immigrants, some of them still struggling to learn French. The dedicated young teacher certainly has his work cut out for him; there's the belligerent Souleymane (Franck Keïta); the sharp and sarcastic Esméralda (Esméralda Ouertani); the alternately sullen and confrontational Khoumba (Rachel Régulier).
They and their dozen or so classmates challenge Marin at every turn. They accuse him of favoring "honky" names in grammar exercises, and resent his attempts to get them to open up about themselves. If you're waiting for the bit where the gangbanger wins a polka scholarship that will deliver him from the 'hood, you'll have to keep waiting. The Class offers no such simple solutions. Sometimes things work out okay; just as often, they don't. Thoughtless actions have unavoidable consequences, fair or not.
We get occasional hints of the assorted challenges the kids have to deal with in their home lives—abusive parents, poverty, the threat of deportation—but these things never take center stage. Instead, The Class focuses intently on the dynamics of the school, whether it's in the classroom, the courtyard, or the teacher's lounge. We haven't seen such an honest depiction of this environment since we were a part of it, and watching it from the perspective of adulthood is nothing short of fascinating.
Bégaudeau and Cantet neither vilify the troublemakers nor canonize Marin (though a few scenes help us understand why some animals eat their young). It can be frustrating at times, but The Class is almost always engaging. At two hours and change, it's longer than it needs to be. The frequent classroom melees are as obnoxious as their participants at times.
If you're looking for the kind of inspirational treacle we've been conditioned to expect from more mainstream teacher/student dramas, you'll be disappointed. Michelle Pfeiffer wouldn't last a day with Marin's class, and Hilary Swank would end up curled into a fetal position in a janitor's closet. The only type of heroism the pic offers is the sort required to keep showing up for work every day. But in its unwillingness to glorify the profession, the filmmakers actually do teachers a great service: the film often makes us wonder, "Why the hell would anyone put up with so much for so little?"
It doesn't give us the kind of Hollywood ending we might hope for, but The Class' cautious optimism is preferable to the empty platitudes offered by its American cousins. Though there are times when we hope Morgan Freeman will walk in with a baseball bat.