Cast: Laurent Cantet
Director: Laurent Cantet
Different in both tone and intention from Dead Poets Society and Dangerous Minds, French film The Class captures the everyday reality of the modern classroom in a manner that American films haven't even attempted before. Following a professor who grapples to tame his unruly bunch of 14-and 15-year-olds, the film's premise may seem familiar, but this is a far, far cry from your uplifting tale of an idealistic teacher who through sheer perseverance finally reaches out to his disruptive class and shows them the joys of learning. This is not that kind of film.
A documentary-like drama about life in a rough, multicultural secondary school in Paris, The Class trails Monsieur Marin, the thirty-something French teacher who likes to challenge his students in the same way that they challenge him. Sarcastic, impatient and not instantly likeable, he is prone to lashing out in anger when his pupils provoke him. For the most part though, he's just figuring out as he goes along how to inculcate discipline, which can be tough since he also wants them to speak their mind.
The kids, in turn, are bored and moody and petulant, and they constantly try to push his buttons. A regular grammar lesson turns into something of a riot, when two female students confront him on why he always uses "white" names like Bill instead of African or Arab names when giving examples to a class that's made up of students with colored skin. Another kid - the uncooperative Souleymane - turns violent, and triggers off a moral dilemma for Marin who is worried that suspension might be too severe a punishment.
Clashes like these between teacher and students over language, etiquette and identity are at the heart of this film which raises some important questions, but is honest enough to admit it doesn't have all the answers.
What is remarkable about The Class is the fact that it never tries to take sides between teachers and students, although there are moments which clearly show that under pressure adults often behave like children. Take one of the early scenes in the staff-room in which a teacher who has been at the school for some years goes through a list of students for a new lecturer, briefing him about each kid - "nice", "not nice", "not nice at all". Or even that scene in which Monsieur Marin irresponsibly attacks two of his female students, calling them "skanks" for sharing privileged information with their classmates.
Inspired by a novel by Francois Begaudeau, The Class is directed by Laurent Cantet who casts the author himself in the central role of Marin, and uses non-professional teenagers from a French school to play Marin's pupils. The film was shot over the course of a full academic year with three hand-held cameras sent into a classroom to capture the improvisational nature of the shoot. The results are spectacular - the kids deliver such natural performances, it's difficult to believe they're not just playing themselves. Two of them - the girls playing Esmeralda and Khoumba - leave a lasting impression, and pretty much steal the show with their spontaneity.
The film which won the Palme d'Or, the top prize at Cannes last year, doesn't end on a particularly hopeful note, but you will be stung by the sheer brutality of the truth that it presents. I'm going with four out of five and two big thumbs up for the French film, The Class. It's that rare kind of film that you'll find yourself thinking and talking about days after you've seen it. This class will have your full attention.
Rating: 4 / 5 (Very Good)
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