The Class Review
'The Class' was released in 2008 and was directed by Laurent Cantet ('Ressources Humaines'). The script was penned by Francois Begaudeau, who also wrote the book on which this movie was based. Winning the Palme D'Or at Cannes and receiving high praise from jury president, Sean Penn, it was the first francophone flick in twenty years to be awarded this accolade. I don't know why but I love movies that are based around schools ('Kidulthood', 'Dazed and Confused') - no matter how good or bad they may be. I'm not too sure what the attraction is but it's obviously something deep seated and psychological! So with this critically acclaimed classroom based drama, which also received an Oscar nomination (Best Foreign Language Film), I was looking forward to seeing if it would live up to the hype.
The cast consists of two distinct groups; the older, more mature “teachers” and the younger, adolescent “students” (whose ages range from twelve to fourteen). The latter feature far more predominantly throughout. The multi-cultural cast of unknowns is headed up by Francois Begaudeau (who plays Francois Marin), who was a teacher himself prior to turning to acting/writing. As the majority of the cast have zero acting experience, 'The Class' could be described as a risky piece of filmmaking. The entire project seems to be hinged on the young casts' ability to convincingly recreate the complex classroom dynamic on demand. As the old adage goes, “Never work with kids or animals”, so let's hope that this movie is an exception to the rule.
Opening with the start of a new school year, Francois Marin, a teacher (for four years) at Francoise Dolto High School, is meeting with his new class. Many underprivileged and undereducated Parisian students attend Dolto High, with many causing the hapless teachers constant grief. We see that Marin's class consists of a multi-racial contingent of both males and females. As the movie progresses we gradually get to know all the students, with a couple coming to the forefront as primary characters. Focusing almost constantly on the classroom based interaction between teacher and student, this movie charts Marin's daily struggle to educate those who simply do not wish to learn. They feel that the majority of subjects taught in the school, such as French, are irrelevant and outdated. Marin has formed tentative connections with each of his students, which are as fragile as a spider web; often broken only to be reformed again through weeks of interaction and building trust. The teachers themselves have dual personas; strict and formal in official situations involving the students and their parents and only truly relaxing and exposing their human side in the refuge of the teacher's recreation room. Through some testing situations, involving his students and their parents, Marin finds himself losing control of his classroom and also gradually loses the respect of some of the stronger characters in his class. He grows frustrated and is pushed to the edge by the unwillingness of his students to actually learn and the corrupt punishment procedures which he must adhere to; the only way he can make some of the students obey his wishes. Bound by school protocol, he is eventually forced to act against his better judgment to make a difficult decision which will ultimately change the life of one of his students forever.
Marin could be described as somewhat of a maverick. He chooses which of the school's policies he enforces in his classroom, for example, he permits the use of mobile phones in his class. He has obviously realised from experience that these underprivileged and undereducated students do not respond well to direct retribution for breaking rules which he feels are irrelevant. He encourages discussion driven learning and treats them like adults, tediously wheedling comprehension from each student and reasoning with them (often pointlessly) to verify his point of view. For example, the discussion on the use of the French language (which is another prominent theme), is a fascinating topic for debate. The students argue that learning outdated modes of the French language is pointless as no one speaks that way anyone; they prefer the use of slang and “text speak”, which is both understandable and convenient. Marin argues that this is the proper way the language should be spoken (and written), to which he receives rebuttal over the evolution the language. For example, terms such as “Ye Olde Shoppe” have been outmoded so who's to say that the term “You are” could not be replaced by “Ure”, the modern “text speak” version of this term. I for one would welcome this change of what's “acceptable language” as I believe that this is the direction which language will eventually take (not to mention the fact that it will make writing reviews a lot faster!). Whilst the discussion based approach which Marin employs in his classroom does have its merits, it also has its downfalls, namely the open invitation for distraction.
There are some very impertinent characters who constantly question Marin's archaic teaching methods (which appeared quite open and modern to me - maybe I'm getting old!). Marin, an experienced teacher, knows when a conflict is coming but just can't quite evade the onslaught of random questioning, which slowly causes his temperature to boil. The troublesome students push his buttons with the practiced knowledge of years of rebellious experience, questioning his morals, methods and sexuality. It's subtly written on the faces of the students that they enjoy seeing Marin squirm under their unified scorn. Sneers on their faces basically stick two fingers up at Marin's opinions and authority, engaging him with zero fear, ample confidence and an ability to question those who are in power without any sense of self-doubt. While these conflicts can be intense they can also provide some moments of hilarity (especially the scenes involving the really thick students!). The homosexual comment, for example, when Marin is trying to describe a snob, is delivered by a student completely in earnest, making it all the more hilarious. These moments of (very natural) humour serve to alleviate some of the more serious subjects which are touched upon at various points throughout.
The movie itself covers many pertinent topics, with its main goal seemingly to expose the shortfalls of the education system, wherein young adults are treated as naive, closeted individuals. Perhaps this was the case fifty years ago but this could not be further from the truth today and is highlighted by the semi-mature, quarrelsome and confident characterisation of Marin's students. The movie also drives home the fact that the teachers are also at the mercy of the flawed and corrupt education system. Marin himself is goaded by school protocol into expelling a student with whom he was just beginning to develop a bond and had made significant progress with. The student in question is faced with the possibility of being sent back to his village in Africa, his chances of ever furthering his education ruined forever. This particular scene exposes the fact that it's the broken and frustrated teachers who have to bear the brunt of the consequences for their actions, which in this case were forced upon them by the education system. The school board meetings and disciplinary hearings are almost a satire of the behaviour of the students in the classroom, with teachers arguing and cajoling with each other to make a point. Ultimately both groups are bound to school protocol, however incorrect and inappropriate it may be. The frustration and helplessness which Marin feels is written all over Begaudeau's weary face, a tribute to this actors capabilities. In fact, for a fledgling actor he does an impressive job in his portrayal of Marin, even if he is basically playing himself! However, it's the young cast who play Marin's students who really steal the show. They are simply stunning and for such a young group there's almost zero instances of “hamming it up” for the cameras. All of the young actors, who worked six hours day on the shoot, really are an acting tour de force (as a whole) and bring the entire presentation to life and bolster the realism factor significantly. Cantet must also be commended for his open-mindedness to permit improvisation and to take guidance from the teenagers on the language which should be included in this piece.
At base level the plot is simplistic and has been done a million times before; an idealistic young teacher is desperately trying to form a connection with his underprivileged and delinquent students to try and help them progress in life. Can anyone say 'Dangerous Minds' - “Snore”! Yet, somehow, Cantet manages to make this situation utterly compelling and engrossing, skipping past umpteen “Schoolroom clichés”, which could have caused the entire piece to derail at any moment. Realism is obviously a key factor in Laurent's productions, with characterisation far more important than the actual plot. This is where this movie comes in huge. It's actually rather disturbing to find oneself plopped right in the middle of the living, breathing entity which is the classroom. It's all here, the bully, the clumsy fool, secret romances, snide remarks, rebellion at “the man”, the intellectual nerds etc. etc. All of the characters are well fleshed out and become more personable as the audience gets to know them better (and for the most part use their own names). Everything that I recall from my own school years is captured masterfully by Laurent, who uses unusual camera angles and quick switches to make the audience feel as though they're right in the middle of all the heated debates. This is a movie that feels like a documentary (and a good one at that) even if it's a drama; a hybrid style of docu-drama if you like!
I suppose the best word to describe this piece is honest, with the film really serving to explore the organic and evolving relationship that a teacher has with his class. It realistically creates a classroom filled with diverse characters, who behave exactly as real students would. The dialogue in particular is very engaging as Marin fences with his class to justify his methods and class content, as well as forging a bond with his students. Tiny smiles and changes of expression indicate instances of this delicate bond which Marin is desperate to hold onto. There is no happy/sad ending as such, just a perpetual cycle of education. The summer months grant both student and teacher alike freedom from the shackles of the classroom, allowing them to become human again, oppression and forced learning a distant memory until the next school year begins. This really is unlike any other movie I have seen. Even though it's got quite a hefty run time (129mins) and doesn't really have a plot, per se (it merely features a couple of loosely connected “events”), it feels very cohesive and above all is highly enjoyable. It provides a fascinating glimpse of the future of France through characterisation of her younger generation of inhabitants. With their loyalties lying elsewhere (such as a mention of the greatness of the English Premier League), the movie also serves as a warning that France's young and diverse population have more pride in their African (and other) roots than they do in France herself; a generation gap that's in danger of becoming a chasm. This point serves to hammer home the message that children are the future and if they don't receive an education on how to behave in society then it (society) will deteriorate with time. This movie comes highly recommended.