Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Class

As a corrective to those films that sanctify the relationship between student and teacher as some sort of holy bond, The Class will likely come as a relief with its view of flawed people struggling in an imperfect institution. Set in an ethnically diverse school in Paris, Laurent Cantet’s film focuses on a single French class taught by an energetic young teacher named Francois Marin, as played by Francois Begaudeau, who co-wrote the film based on his own memoir of his teaching experiences. This does somewhat blur the line between fiction and reality, but keep in mind that the film is about Mr. Marin, not Mr. Begaudeau.

Cantet only adds to this confusion by employing—for lack of a better description—a stereotypically “realist” style to capture improvised exchanges and stray details in the classroom. The conversations in the first half of the film are loose and unforced, and rarely seem contrived to serve any other purpose than illustrating the natural back-and-forth of the classroom. There is little of anything resembling a plot at this point of the film. We simply observe the relationship between Francois and his students, which might sound tedious to some, but given the immediacy of Cantet’s camera, the experience is as immersive as sitting in a desk in the room itself.

Students give the teacher a hard time for using the name Bill in an example, rather than one that reflects their own ethnic heritages. Francois butts heads with a sullen young girl named Khoumba who was better behaved during the previous school year. Students argue that it is useless to learn one of the more formal French tenses because people don’t actually use it in everyday speech; Francois retorts that they can decide it is useless once they master it. The relationship between Francois and his students is strikingly casual—he chides the students, teases them, and they respond with attitude and even belligerence, however mild.

It never crosses a line until Francois loses his temper and tells two girls they are “behaving like skanks,” which prompts a heated exchange with Souleymane, a struggling student with a long history of discipline problems at the school. The boy tries to walk out of class while others block his way, and in the ensuing confusion his bag hits Khoumba in the face, cutting her and leaving her bloody. The second half of the film falls into somewhat more conventional territory, with the teachers debating what to do with Souleymane and Francois trying to reassert his authority over the class after diminishing his stature with his angry outburst.

Francois pushes against the traditional image of a teacher—he wants to be informal with the students to encourage them to open up about their own selves, and he struggles to find ways to avoid the role of stern, punishing pedant—but he also helplessly, even unknowingly, falls into that role all the same. At times, he mouths hoariest clich├ęs of bluffing pedagogical authority—unwisely arguing with the students about his use of the word “skanks,” he says that there are things he can say that they cannot, and when Souleymane is angry, Francois’ strongest rejoinder is that you are not supposed to talk disrespectfully to a teacher. When pushed, he can’t help but hide behind the feeble authority of being a teacher that he is supposedly undermining with his often-casual class atmosphere. Even as he talks of “rewinding the movie” on Souleymane, he admits he cannot see a way to avoid the same sad result.

The film never really comes to terms with this tension in Francois’ position, and it’s hard not to suspect that the film’s opinion of Francois is more positive than its actual portrayal of the man, who seems at best a failed idealist forced to submit to the cold pragmatism of the existing system, and at worst, a petty man unable to account for his own failings. Perhaps because the film is drawn from Begaudeau’s experiences and co-written by the man himself, it errs on the side of sympathy rather than criticism.

The final scene shows the students and teachers playing a year-end soccer game. They are all in good spirits, laughing, and completely removed from the deadlock of the classroom, rather neatly skipping any question of the ethics Francois’ behaviour for something that feels vaguely, and rather suspiciously, utopian—an image of students and teachers in harmony at last. But inside the classroom, “between the walls” as the film’s French title says, these people cannot help but succumb to the antagonism of their roles. I think that is what makes the final shot of the empty classroom so eerie—will it be any different once a new group of people fills those spaces? Or will this drama simply replay next year with different leads?

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