So real you might mistake it for a documentary, this portrait of a class of inner-city Parisian adolescents and their hard-working, well-meaning, but not entirely unblemished teacher has plenty to say about education in France and everywhere else traditional societies are struggling to address a multi-cultural generation.
That documentary feel isn’t just a style choice – handheld cameras, raw, naturalistic sound and all that - it’s organic to the process by which the film developed.
All too often in Hollywood movies these days high school students are impersonated by young actors in their late teens and twenties. Director Laurent Cantet’s approach is more exacting, more in line with the kind of work done by Mike Leigh, Shane Meadows and Pawel Pawlikowski. The filmmaker went to a school in the 20th arrondisement and devoted nearly a year to weekly three-hour workshops with students, half of whom ended up in the movie, along with their real-life parents and teachers.
The teacher, Francois Marin, is played by Francois Begaudeau, himself a former teacher whose autobiographical novel “Entre les murs” (Between the Walls) was a primary source for the film. Even so, much of the script came out of improvisations developed with the children in the workshops. Shooting took place in the school over the summer, Cantet following the dialogue with three video cameras which supplied him with 150 hours of raw footage.
The structure is straight forward enough. We begin at the beginning of the school year – and a new intake of faculty and students – and end ten months later as school breaks up for summer. Cantet scarcely leaves the school grounds and mostly confines himself to Marin’s French class (he teaches literature and grammar, but he’s also their form tutor). The kids are 14 or 15, girls and boys reflecting the multi-ethnic make up of their working class neighbourhood. Native French are just one clique among immigrant children from North Africa, China and the Caribbean. There is much animated debate about the African Cup of Nations, for example. Monsieur Marin, on the other hand, is white, on the right side of middle-age, and of the firm but fair school.
We think we know how this will go: the idealistic, unconventional teacher will win over a hostile class by meeting them halfway, sneaking some rap into their poetry lessons and some social work into his home work. Maybe that’s how Marin sees it too. He’s awake enough to appreciate that digression can impart more valuable learning than any lesson plan, and over the course of the school year we see how he reaches out to the most reticent and challenging kids – in particular Souleymanne (Franck Keita), a boy from Mali who has been written off by most of his teachers, but who produces a remarkable, touching self-portrait when Francois allows him to use photographs in place of words. Still, things don’t turn out quite how you might think. In this case, good intentions are not enough.
Cantet made the excellent Time Out, Human Resources, and the slightly less assured Heading South. But he’s had his biggest success with this film. The Class won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year and was a nominee for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It is also nominated for five CÚsar awards. Normally I might start a review by noting that kind of acclaim, but in this case I hesitate to do so, because it might set up expectations for fireworks that aren’t on the agenda here. On the surface, at least, this is a small, modest, observational film that refrains from grand gestures and sweeping statements. That it actually cuts to the core of so many issues around identity, education and multiculturalism is testament to its powerful and uncompromising authenticity.
The Class offers an incisive, challenging microcosm of a twenty-first century western democracy straining to assimilate diverse ethnicities and cultures while validating its own heritage. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that in the end it becomes a study of power and privilege, containment and exclusion. That’s definitely not the kind of happy ending we’ve been taught in American cinema, but it leaves us with plenty to talk about in class tomorrow.
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