Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport and get your shots, because this week we’re heading to…
Thirty minutes into last year’s Palme d’Or winner, The Class, I was wondering aloud why the film was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, how the film had earned so much critical praise, and what I was going to have for lunch. An hour and a half later I was poo-pooing the Academy’s flawed final decision (the Oscar went to Japan’s Departures), agreeing with much of the film’s unanimous acclaim, and gathering ingredients for French Toast. The Class is an engrossing slow-burn of a film that surprises with its power and bravery even as it consciously avoids providing answers to many of the questions it raises.
Francois Marin (Francois Begaudeau) is a teacher at a Parisian school who returns from summer vacation to find a change in the air. Students have become more disruptive and unruly and fellow teachers seem to be burning out faster than ever. He handles it at first through a combination of control and acceptance but soon finds himself pushed to the breaking point by the betrayal of two student representatives. The girls are class reps in the faculty’s weekly meetings and privy to often incendiary information about their classmates which they’ve chosen to share. As authority over his classroom begins to slip Marin unwisely refers to the two girls as “skanks” which immediately turns an already tenuous situation into chaos.
Shot in almost documentary style, the brilliant conceit of director Laurent Cantet’s The Class is that all of the action occurs within school boundaries over several months. Most of the time is spent within Marin’s classroom with only occasional sojourns to the teachers’ lounge, meeting rooms, or recess area. With no access into the home lives of either students or teachers the viewers find themselves on the same plane of knowledge as the two sides themselves. Both halves of the system only know what they see in school… teachers may wonder (or not) what’s happening in a student’s home life, but they’ll never truly know, just as students have their doubts and curiosities about the teachers’ motivations and lives.
Marin wonders what happened over summer break that turned Khoumba from a friendly girl into an insolent one, if the extremely bright and open Wei will survive the deportation of his mother back to China, if the combative Souleymane can be saved from himself… but what can he do with just a few hours per day? It’s clear he cares, but is it enough? And what do you do with students who simply refuse to learn, whose behavior interrupts class and impedes the others, who blatantly insult and undermine your authority? Credit is due to this fictional teacher as well as to all of the real world ones. I myself would be stapling tongues to foreheads before the day’s end…
Begaudeau not only stars as Marin but he also wrote the non-fiction book the film is based on as well as co-wrote the screenplay. His real life teaching experience lends his acting a calm credibility resulting in a very precise and believable performance. The students can be a mixed bag though which is to be expected as most (if not all) of them are real, non-actor teenagers. Cantet captures the multi-cultural microcosm that is many schools today, both in France and here in the US, and presents it with an unflinching and inquisitive eye.
The Class is a moving portrait of life and language and how both are changing on a daily basis. Marin begins the school year with the students identifying words they don’t understand, but it’s Marin himself who misuses a term to potentially disastrous results. His language in general, the language of adults and professionals the world over, is not the same one used by these next generations. What use is knowledge of the past participle in the world of tomorrow? Or even in the world of today with so much communication occurring online, via texting, via twittering, via Facebook walls, etc. Technology in combination with the growing multi-ethnic realities are quickly making yesterday’s rules obsolete. Where does that leave yesterday’s educators?
The Class is currently in limited theatrical release. Check out the trailer below.