The Class | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published April 1, 2009 at 7:37 a.m.

The Class is not an easy sell. It’s long. It’s talky. It’s subtitled. But anyone who teaches or has a strong interest in the future of public education should see it. And moviegoers who can appreciate last year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner as a documentary (which it almost is) will find it offers winning insights on how people clash and compromise, in or outside school.

How can a film be almost a documentary? Director Laurent Cantet (Time Out, Human Resources) wanted to make a movie about school that would be the anti-Dead Poets Society (according to a New York Times interview). He turned to a best-selling, fact-based novel about one young teacher’s experiences and enlisted its author, François Bégaudeau, to play himself (more or less). A casting call brought in high-school-aged nonactors, with whom Cantet and Bégaudeau held improv workshops to turn them into a facsimile of a real class. Cantet filmed the results, using three digital cameras at all times to capture fleeting, unscripted reactions.

He succeeded. Amateurs asked to play themselves on film often seem painfully stagy, but this isn’t the case with Bégaudeau or his “students.” The action takes place in Paris’ 20th arrondissement, a multiracial area less troubled than the city’s suburbs. Still, several of François’ students tell him in no uncertain terms that they don’t consider themselves “French.” Their allegiance is to the places where their parents were born — and, perhaps still more, to those nations’ soccer teams. When Morocco shuts Mali out of the African Cup, all hell breaks loose in the classroom.

But the cultural divide goes deeper. Even pupils of French ancestry roll their eyes at the formal French François tries to teach them. “Who talks like that?” they demand. When the teacher concedes that the subjunctive can sound snobbish, they ask him what “snob” means. And so it goes. While the kids are deeply opinionated, they’re connoisseurs of music genres and video games, not of words. No wonder that, when another teacher suggests he assign them some Voltaire, François just sighs.

Many teachers — on both sides of the Atlantic — react to this transgenerational static by tuning it out. They lecture to the “smart ones” in the class, silence the trouble makers and ignore the others. Not so François. What makes his teaching unusual — and controversial — is that he won’t stop engaging with the students, even when that means engaging in shouting matches. When the 14-year-olds goad him, he tries to figure out why. In his mind, everything is potentially a teachable moment, even a student’s sly mention of a rumor going around that François “loves men.” (“That really seems to interest you,” he replies innocently, teasing out the kid’s implicit homophobia.)

François ultimately denies the rumor, but for all we know, he could be engaging in bisexual bondage games on the weekends. The film departs from standard teacher dramas in showing us nothing of his personal life. It stays true to its French title, Entre les Murs (Between the Walls) by keeping all the action on school grounds, in the classroom, the principal’s office or the teachers’ lounge. The result is a claustrophobic experience, much like going to high school.

Indeed, viewers may find themselves flashing back to their own most dynamic teachers and remembering something movies generally leave out: Those memorable pedagogues don’t transform every student they encounter, at least not in immediately obvious ways. Far more typical is François’ relationship with Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani), a smart, bored girl who sits in class with a chronic sneer, waiting for him to make a mistake so she can point it out. Deep down, though, she wants François’ approval, as we see by her reaction when his patience finally snaps and he calls her an epithet she finds profoundly insulting.

Like Britain’s acclaimed series of 7 Up documentaries, The Class reminds us that young people are not blank slates for inspiring adults to write on: They’re products of their time and place, their class and culture and family quirks. François doesn’t always qualify as a role model, either. But the movie’s slow-burn excitement comes from watching the teacher do something that people from all walks of life are far more likely to preach than practice. He keeps the lines of communication open.