18 February 2009

The Class

Directed by Laurent Cantet
Written by François Bégaudeau, Robin Campillo and Laurent Cantet
Full credits from IMDb

The Class (Entre les Murs) humbly and deceptively masquerades as a straightforward, documentary-style account of a year in the life of a French middle school; narrowly focused, it never travels outside the walls mentioned in the French title: it bounces from the classroom to the teacher’s lounge, occasionally jumping to faculty meetings and parent-teacher conferences. Cantet and his cast imbue the film with authenticity: the teachers complain and the students misbehave; debates over soccer and national loyalties, confessions of vulnerabilities, and challenges to the professor-protagonist’s investment in his students emerge organically from interactions between the raucous 14-year-old students (Arabs, Africans, West Indians, Chinese) and their French teacher. (That is, a Frenchman who teaches “French”.)

The Class is, on one level, the student-teacher movie finally done right. The phony inspirationalism of Hollywood’s set-‘em-straight high school picture (the best of which is Christopher Cain’s maximally absurd The Principal) is entirely absent, replaced by something more authentically matter-of-fact: Bégaudeau, the teacher, does his darndest, but he’s imperfect—a flawed hero. He remains sympathetic, but he calls a few girls “skanks” and allows his class to get out of control, which in a climactic scene provokes an act of accidental violence that threatens one student’s future. (This lately introduced storyline is the film’s only stab at some semblance of narrative.) Each classroom conversation scene bursts with sincerity; each child comes across as a real person, rather than an allegorical storytelling device.

And yet symbols are just what the kids are: The Class unobtrusively doubles as a microcosmic exploration of France’s failed melting pot society; Cantet handles both the literal and the symbolic with dexterity, allowing both to exist independently. In recent years, French identity, never quite flexible to begin with, has been called into question by an influx of unassimilated immigrants. Cantet’s film, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Bégaudeau, who stars as himself (and does a heck of a job of it!), examines the obstacles to integrated citizenship—including, for example, parents who don’t speak the native language—as well as the relationship between colonizer and colonized, authority and subject. (One student accuses the imperfect subjunctive tense of being “bourgeois”. Très pas Français!) Expulsion becomes a parallel for deportation; doing well academically for assimilation. Some students succeed, others are left behind—and it is the latter that leaves a black mark on the country. The film ends with a nice, quiet girl approaching the French teacher at the end of the year. “I didn’t learn anything,” she admits meekly, fearfully. “I don’t understand what we do.” With quiet devastation, it signals Bégaudeau’s failure. And France’s. Grade: A

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