Dir: Laurent Cantet
Sony Pictures Classics
Is it possible for me to look at The Class, through a different lens than that of my own experience? I love full disclosure when I read reviews and it’s time for me to fess up. I was a classroom teacher for five years, three in a poor, rural school in New Hampshire and two at a swank, private school in Maryland. Though the problems tied to economics differed in each environment, the basic human troubles remained the same. I sought to exert control over a roomful of individuals who wanted nothing more than freedom.
How many films have we seen where the white teacher enters a “troubled” urban classroom and gentrifies its denizens by the end of the two hours. Look, they are appreciating Shakespeare and not trying to stab one another! The Class is different. Rather than give the audience a meaty story to chew, director Laurent Cantet (Time Out) sets his camera on observation mode and lets the fireworks happen in real time. More of a commentary on the state of public education than a teacher-saves-world drama, The Class chronicles a term in a French, multiethnic junior high school where a mixed student body of race and class present a concoction of different problems for the teacher to face.
Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, The Class is a riveting, authentic experience. Realism is the name of the game and The Class brought me back to my time at the public school. Everyone is overworked; no one knows quite what to do. Just like the teacher in the film, I felt overwhelmed and unsupported. Day after day of such battling is tiresome. Though the teacher (Francois Begaudeau, who also based the screenplay on his own novel) wants his students to enjoy writing, he is in survival mode. Sometimes that means resorting to the same sort of mockery that the students throw at him. It is hard to tell who the adult is at times.
It is difficult to spark the desire of education in an epoch when intractable ignorance is so vaunted. Sometimes the lowest common denominator is too high and Begaudeau struggles to remain cordial in such a hostile environment. But that is all a matter of perspective. When the students question his use of Gallic names in his examples, challenging him especially when the majority of the class has names such as Wei, Esmeralda, Khoumba and Souleymane, it shows that neither side is willing to budge. Such a standoff eventually leads to an expulsion and then a situation in which the teacher’s career is called into question.
This is a not a film made to manipulate the audience with clever lighting, swelling music and dramatic sweep. It’s the realism of the class and its members that make this film so special. The relationships that exist between the teacher and each student feel authentic and never does Cantet sacrifice that authenticity for cheap melodrama, even when the teacher finally loses his cool and makes a terrible gaffe.
For me, a strong film resonates hours, days, weeks after viewing. The Class was more than a way to kill off two hours; it is a manifesto on our current global educational situation. In this classroom, everyone feels trapped, everyone is scrambling for help, but we are all too proud to show it.
by David Harris