Films about education usually belong to one of two schools. There is the tear-stained ode to inspirational mentors, from Goodbye, Mr Chips and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to Dead Poets Society, or the cautionary tale in which classrooms are hotbeds of danger (Blackboard Jungle, Class of 1984 and 187). It's as rare for these species to overlap successfully as it is for a teacher's salary to come with an expense account and a driver.
The Class, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year, contains traces of both kinds of film, and for a time it is anyone's guess where it will throw in its lot. The hero, François, is an enthusiastic teacher, sparky but not grating, which would seem to place him in the Miss Jean Brodie/Mr Chips camp. Over the course of a year, he teaches 25 or so 15-year-olds at a Paris school, and the picture documents his daily classes, teasing out narrative threads from the students' boredom and bickering. The pupils and staff in the film, who are all from Françoise Dolto Junior High in the 20th arrondissement, worked up the scenes in improvisations with François Bégaudeau, who plays François, and the director, Laurent Cantet.
Shooting predominantly with three high-definition cameras positioned along the side of the classroom - one concentrating on François, another on the pupils, a third zeroing in on random details - Cantet achieves an effect that could be called documentary style, if documentaries were omniscient. The young non-professionals, for their part, show no flicker of camera-consciousness. Any preening or posing glimpsed here isn't acting so much as essence- of-adolescent.
Bégaudeau himself is a real-life teacher who wrote Entre les murs, the autobiographical book on which the film is based (and also collaborated on the screenplay with Cantet and Robin Campillo). It is unusual to find a man playing a version of himself in a fictionalised film of his own experiences - Richard Pryor in Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling or Howard Stern in Private Parts spring to mind, though both those films were celebrity confessionals.
Bégaudeau is candid in his way, too, disqualifying himself from full Mr Chips status by laying bare his flaws. François is in every way a responsible, encouraging teacher, but he isn't infallible. When he calls a pupil's progress "limited" and the term finds its way back to the boy in question, there is hell to pay. François doesn't have the funds, semantically speaking, to settle that particular debt, and it returns to him tenfold when he carelessly insults another couple of students into the bargain.
The Class counters the Blackboard Jungle view of school life as warfare, but is interested in another kind of battleground, specifically a linguistic one. François sleepwalks into his troubles, but the writing has been on the chalkboard all along. Early in the film, he is reprimanded by two pupils who question his use of anglicised names for his examples in class: Bill has 12 apples, Bob has three, that sort of thing. Why not Rachid? Or Aïssata? It's a playful scene, planting the seed for the film's theme - the use of language to gain leverage, to shape the world. One pupil, securing the final word in an argument with François, crows that he has "wiped him out", that boast of annihilation conveying exactly what is at stake.
Cantet gives the struggle for control of language a cinematic dimension, and a social one, too. One boy's mother is facing deportation and another pupil is a candidate for expulsion, yet The Class never feels like an old-fashioned "issue movie": the subplots fade in and out like the low buzz of classroom chatter.
Cantet established himself as a highly scrupulous director with Human Resources and Time Out, films about how work defines us even in our most interior moments. With The Class, he brings hopeful inflections to his ongoing analysis of the work-life balance. By the by, he has also made one of the few films about school life that falls between two types, neither inundating the audience with gold stars nor subjecting it to a grave and interminable lecture.
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