Finally, a film that portrays teaching truthfully—as a chaotic, frustrating, and rewarding collaboration between teacher and student, prey to as many reversals as advances, and subject to institutional, social, and political forces in and outside the classroom. The Class, 2008 Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, follows one teacher’s French language and literature class at a racially and ethnically diverse Parisian high school over the course of the school year.
Based on François Bégaudeau’s best-selling, semi-fictional account of his year at a Paris school, The Class stars real students, teachers, and parents, who rehearsed for a full school year before filming the feature during the following summer recess. Bégaudeau plays the teacher, François Marin.
Marin reaches some students and loses others, alliances form and dissolve, students transfer to the school and others are expelled. Teachers and school administrators interact with parents and make the best of diminished resources as they struggle to prepare their charges for life outside of school.
American films about high school tend to stop short of such a comprehensive view of secondary education. Typically, they deify heroic instructors (Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dangerous Minds), whose classrooms are havens at odds with the conformity or mediocrity of the rest of the institution. In this they often merely give familiar stories about admirable loners or nonconformists an educational setting, in which the school milieu is finally incidental.
In fact, American high school films rarely spend much time in the classroom at all, favoring brief in-class interactions that move the plot forward, or teaching moments that occur conveniently during the three minutes before the bell rescues scriptwriter and director alike from dealing with extended sequences that show a recognizable pedagogy at work.
In sharp contrast, The Class presents Marin as representative—not a hero, just a dedicated teacher—and the bulk of the action takes place in his classroom. Prepared, inventive, able to extemporize in the classroom, but nevertheless flawed, Marin makes many mistakes as he structures breakthroughs for his class. The demands of keeping up with students, interacting with colleagues, and conferencing with parents threaten to overwhelm him; tight shots and a very limited selection of locations emphasize the school’s relentless routine and high-stress atmosphere.
With the exception of the first scene, Marin downing a coffee in a café, then walking to work, all the action takes place at the school. While the film documents one full school year, it feels more like one very long, difficult, exhausting day.
In The Class, students are rendered just as complexly as their teacher: alternately engaged, incorrigible, and exasperating. Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani) torments Marin daily, demanding why, when writing grammar examples on the board, he uses traditional French given names instead of ones drawn from his sizable immigrant student population. She eggs-on her classmates as discussions escalate into altercations. Yet, when requested, she reads a passage from The Diary of Anne Frank beautifully, setting up Marin’s introduction of a personal narrative assignment.
At the end of the year, when the teacher asks his pupils what they’ve learned, Esmeralda claims she read nothing of value in class, then notes that she did read and enjoy her sister’s copy of Plato’s Republic. Marin, understanding that this ostensible insult reflects Esmeralda’s need to gain his respect on her own terms, asks the student to summarize the book for the class, which she does succinctly and accurately.
This complex interaction that lasts less than a minute illustrates Marin’s deft handling of his classroom, which is always active, always on the verge of spinning out of control, and as a result has become a space where real learning happens.
Engineering opportunities for success in the classroom often isn’t enough, The Class teaches; familial, cultural, even political currents outside of the school and teachers’ control buffet these adolescents. Student Souleymane (Franck Keïta), in response to Marin’s foolish use of a derogatory term to describe some of his female students, repeatedly addresses the teacher with the personal tu instead of the formal vous, a serious breach of respect in French classrooms, then inadvertently strikes a female classmate as he storms out of the room.
Marin is compelled to put in motion actions that lead to the boy’s expulsion, even though the teacher and the principal know there’s a good chance Souleymane’s father will send him back to Mali. And while Esmeralda and her classmates might razz Marin for his alleged insensitivity to diversity, schoolyard scuffles and one class in which students are allowed to sound off on a topic of their choice show that the students themselves aren’t always comfortable with each other. Classmates from Morocco, Mali, and the Caribbean chafe against each other over their favorite football teams, sport serving as a relatively safe surrogate for more serious tensions.
Although these are real students and real teachers in a real school, The Class isn’t a documentary, but something more impressive: a film whose script incorporates a number of extemporaneous changes in dialogue and plot that took place during a yearlong workshop with both students and teachers. So rather than playing themselves, the students are acting as characters they helped create.
An excellent featurette on the making of The Class, among the DVD extras, details the process. Also worth viewing are explications of two key scenes by Bégaudeau and director Laurent Cantet, which showcase the thoughtfulness with which they approached the project at all stages.