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Monday, March 2, 2009

Review: The Class (2008)

* * * *

Director: Laurent Cantet
Starring: Francois Begaudeau

My feelings about “teacher movies” can pretty much be summed up with this little piece of brilliance (though, in fairness, some of them centre on inspirational men rather than women), as entries in the genre typically offer little in the way of variation. To its credit, The Class is a different kind of film, perhaps because it stars non-actors, including Francois Begaudeau who wrote the source novel which was itself based on his own experiences as a teacher, and perhaps because it limits its scope to the process of teaching. Whatever the reason, Laurent Cantet’s film is a fine achievement.

The film takes place over the course of one school year and focuses on one particular class. Very little of the action takes place outside the classroom and the structure of the story is very loose, unfolding as a series of vignettes. What sets this film apart from many others in the genre is that it spends a lot of time exploring the process and methods of teaching to a room full of teenagers with short attention spans and limited interest. Francois doesn’t make inspirational speeches or do characters to get the kids’ interested; he simply, and sometimes wearily, ploughs forward, hoping to find a way to get them to connect with what he’s teaching. Sometimes he succeeds and sometimes he fails and it’s largely dependent on the combustible emotions of his students, who can like him one day and hate him the next.

Most of the students blend into one another, though a few stand out by virtue of the exorbitant amount of frustration they cause Francois. Early on he has problems with Khoumba, who accuses him of having it out for her. He’s baffled by this accusation and questions her as to what happened over the summer to cause this change in their relationship, which was so easy the year before. He’s met with further hostility, including a letter in which she elaborates on what she sees as a problem of mutual respect their dealings with each other, and afterwards gives her space. By the end of the school year all seems to have been forgotten and they once again relate to each other in an easy way free of dramatic outbursts. The same cannot be said of his relationship with Souleyman, which deteriorates to the breaking point over the course of the year. In a lesser film, Francois would find a way to be Souleyman’s hero by getting involved in his after school life and finding a way to improve it. Here he knows that it’s not his place, that his intervention is not desired and would, in fact, be resented.

Francois isn’t perfect and he makes mistakes in his efforts to deal with his students. His frustration sometimes gets the better of him and he loses his temper, as in one classroom exchange when he uses the word “skanks” to describe the behaviour of two of the students, misunderstanding its connotation and having to have it explained to him by his students, who also lodge a complaint. It’s a moment of reversal which leaves him momentarily floundering, forced to confront his own shortcomings and mistakes.

Cantet shoots the film in an intimate fashion which gives the story a feeling of such authenticity that it occasionally seems more like a documentary than a work of narrative fiction. I know that there are some who are put off by the plot description, thinking that it sounds either derivative or boringly academic – rest assured that the reality of The Class is anything but. This is a lively and engaging film that manages to tap into the shifting rhythms of the classroom and the sometimes fraught relationship between educator and student. I was riveted from beginning to end.

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