There is a long and noble cinematic tradition of inspiring movies about heroic teachers who take a gaggle of troublesome students and steer them onto the path of greatness.
“The Class” is not one of them.
To be sure, this French drama – which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and won the Palm d’Or at Cannes – takes place almost entirely in a classroom populated by an array of 14- and 15-year-olds with varying degrees of smarts and sass. And there’s a young, handsome teacher who clearly would like to bring out the best in them. But that doesn’t always happen.
The film is shot by director Laurent Cantet in a loose documentary style that makes you believe all this is unfolding naturally before your eyes. That’s not an accident, because the teacher, Mr. Marin, is played by François Bégaudeau, a real teacher who wrote the book on which the movie is based about his own experiences teaching at an inner-city Parisian school. And, in most cases, non-actors using their real names play the students.
The story unfolds organically over the course of a school year in a French language class. At first, Marin’s attention focuses on one or two students, but over time they recede into the background and other students come to the fore.
Khoumba, a girl that Marin had in last year’s class, has suddenly grown insolent, challenging the teacher and refusing to read when called upon. Their confrontation leads to a stand-off in which they essentially refuse to speak to each other, and the learning process ceases for her.
Later, the attention of the class, and “The Class,” shifts to Souleymane, the tall boy who sits in the back and won’t do any work. For a moment there’s a glimmer of hope, as Marin encourages Souleymane to use a collage of photos of his family to substitute for the self-portrait he has refused to write. When the teacher congratulates him and hangs the pictures up for everyone to admire, the boy thinks a joke is being played on him, so unused is he to praise.
Soon, though, his bombastic behavior contributes to an unfortunate incident that results in serious repercussions for student and teacher.
Many of the students are from immigrant families, and the clashes, both between class and instructor and between students, often take on a multicultural bent. For instance, the students (accurately) accuse Marin of only using traditional French (i.e., Caucasian) names when demonstrating proper grammar.
It’s a brave performance by Bégaudeau, since he’s essentially playing himself, and as a teacher he is well-meaning but leaves a lot to be desired. In attempting to relate to his students in order to help them learn, he ends up engaging them one-on-one in verbal combat. It’s understandable, since 15-year-olds are pretty much genetically designed to push a grown-up’s buttons. Ironically, it’s in trying to be their friends that Marin most often treads into becoming their tormentor.
The portrait of French public education is also fascinating, and perhaps encouraging to those who think American schools are the root of Western decay. We see behind closed doors as the teachers bluntly evaluate a student’s prospects and degenerate into petty bureaucracies – at one point, a discussion over the price of coffee in the teacher’s lounge overshadows one about a troublesome student.
This exquisite and sobering look into a Parisian school will inspire and demoralize anyone who has ever stood in front of a classroom, or sat in one. Most teachers genuinely want to help their students learn, though their execution is often imperfect and even can make matters worse. That’s the lesson of “The Class.”