One of the best films about education of recent years was Nicholas Philibert’s wonderful documentary “To Be and To Have,” which followed the academic year in a one-room schoolhouse in the Auvergne region of France. Now comes another, very different but even better French picture, Laurent Cantet’s extraordinarily vivid and truthful adaptation of Francois Begaudeau’s novel, based on his own experience as a teacher, about a year in the classroom of an inner-city Parisian high school.
Begaudeau himself plays the teacher, here called Francois Marin, who leads a multi-ethnic group of students in the study of French literature. He’s an energetic, quick-thinking fellow with a genuine concern for his charges, more reluctant than many of his colleagues to declare any of them a hopeless case to be sent off to a different campus. But he’s no saint: while tolerant of interruptions and challenges from the kids and willing to try new methods like having them prepare personal journals, he also shows flashes of irritability and, on one particular occasion, will make an error in judgment that carries serious consequences.
And his students are a disparate lot. While Chinese immigrant Wei (Wei Huang) is a studious, disciplined boy who’d appreciate greater order among his classmates, others, like brassy Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani), are troublemakers, and one Souleymane (Franck Keita), who’s from the former French African colony of Mali, grows increasingly unpredictable and volatile as the year progresses. Mini-crises will erupt as Francois’ methods are questioned, his relationships with the students deteriorate, and the futures of some of his charges—as well as one of their parents—come under a cloud.
“The Class” is unlike most high school stories, especially those that have emanated from the Hollywood studios over the years, in that it doesn’t have a simple, straight-line plot and a preordained hopeful ending. To the contrary, it revels in the ordinary problems of a teacher’s school day—sending kids to the principal’s office, arguing at faculty conferences (in which the students have their own representatives), dealing with rumors, all while trying to instruct uninterested youngsters in the niceties of French grammar and literary style—interrupted by sudden sidetracks and reversals.
That character derives not just from the fact that it’s based on Begaudeau’s experiences, but that the final script was crafted by him, Cantet and Robin Campillo with improvisational input from the performers who play the kids—and from the director’s method of shooting in a real classroom with three cameras operating simultaneously to allow for long takes from differing perspectives. The result is a film that manages to offer a story arc of sorts, marked by small but telling vignettes, while preserving a gritty documentary feel.
The performances have a ring of authenticity to them, as well, even though the actors aren’t really playing themselves. Begaudeau is convincing as a well-intentioned but flawed man and the other adults, including those who play teachers and the parents, are all excellent. But it’s the young performers who stand out, with Keita ferociously real and all the others, even the ones with only a scene or two to make an impression, not far behind, like a young man who delivers a speech to the class about why he chooses to dress in dark goth garb, despite the ridicule it brings him. That’s just one of many minor moments that add to the richness of the whole.
It goes without saying that “The Class” eschews visual slickness for a grittier, more realistic look via triple cameramen Pierre Milon, Catherine Pujol and Georgi Lazarevski. That, and the plain-jane location work and costuming of the rest of the crew, fits in perfectly with the director’s vision.
Cantet’s earlier “Human Resources” and “Time Out” were two of the most incisive pictures dealing with the working world made in recent years. This incredibly honest and revealing film about public education in the age of multiculturalism and globalization matches and in some respects improves on them. And while it obviously has special relevance to contemporary France, its themes are universal.