REVIEW: “The Class” (***1/2)

Posted by · 7:43 pm · October 20th, 2008

Sony Pictures Classics\' The ClassLondon Film Festival

“We could have ended up making a leftwing ‘Dead Poets Society,’” states star and co-writer François Bégaudeau in the press notes for “The Class,” Laurent Cantet’s exhilarating Palme d’Or winner ( and a surefire frontrunner for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar). “That didn’t seem amusing to us at all.”

Too right. Few settings are as simultaneously overworked and under-thought in cinema than the psychological (and occasionally physical) battleground of the high school classroom. From “The Blackboard Jungle” and “To Sir, With Love,” through to “Dangerous Minds” and that aforementioned Peter Weir schmaltzathon, the ‘inspirational teacher’ movie has become a sub-genre in itself, generally characterized by diagrammatic characterization and comfortable liberal homilies.

Two years ago, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson,” about a dedicated history teacher who just happened to be a crack addict, introduced some darker notes to the formula, which has now been completely reconfigured by “The Class,” an astonishing, one-of-a-kind work that is effectively the last word in the classroom genre.

Seamlessly meshing documentary-style observation with a loose fictional script from the Mike Leigh school of work-shopping, Cantet’s richly layered film is a return to the masterful form of “Human Resources” after the curious misstep that was “Heading South.” With an organic, unhurried sense of scene construction and a keen eye for behavioral detail, “The Class” emerges not only as a highly entertaining piece of one-off storytelling, but as an urgent (yet unforced) microcosm of the sociopolitical tensions running through modern-day France.

What makes the film more compelling than most of its predecessors is the sheer absence of self-congratulation on display. Marin, the charismatic, open-minded French language teacher at its center, is neither crusading idealist nor tough-love saint.

As portrayed by first-time actor Bégaudeau  — an author and former teacher from whose autobiographical novel the film is derived — he’s merely a regular guy doing the job he‘s paid (very little) to do. He doesn’t want to change the world. He makes errors in judgment, sometimes with regrettable consequences, but is driven throughout by a sincere interest in his students.

François Bégaudeau in The ClassLikewise, said students aren’t the usual ragbag of issue-movie-of-the-week misadjusts. They have problems — the school in question serves a rough, largely immigrant-populated neighborhood in outer Paris — but the usual themes of drugs, gang violence and teen pregnancy aren’t on the agenda.

Rather this is about kids battling their own sense of cultural isolation — be it Chinese student Wei (Wei Huang), faced with language barriers and the threat of his mother’s deportation, or chief troublemaker Souleymane (a riveting Franck Keita), a prejudice-riven immigrant from Mali confounded by other African classmates who identify as French.

With Marin as our interlocutor, the film follows the class through an entire school year, flipping between the garrulous, sometimes heated student-teacher dialogue in the classroom and the exasperated, frequently petty negotiations of the staffroom, but never once leaving the confines of the school campus. (The film’s French title in “Entre Les Murs,” which translates as “Between the Walls.”)

Over the course of the film, the zones begin to merge as certain conflicts between Marin and his students — particularly one involving Souleymane — escalate beyond the bounds of the classroom, distorted through rumor and misunderstanding. Some are resolved, or at least defused, but just as many aren’t. The film concludes with some of its characters’ futures left hanging in the balance, offering no pat solutions or cheap redemption.

If that sounds indigestibly grim or worthy, rest assured “The Class” is neither. Many of the classroom scenes are characterized by rapid-fire humor in the largely improvised banter between Marin and his students, as they debate everything from football to homosexuality to the imperfect subjunctive tense.

The ClassCantet is in thrall to the shifting rhythms and power balances of human conversation and, especially, argument; his film is talky in the very best sense of the word. He takes care to avoid weighing the scales in anyone’s favor; these teenagers are maddeningly obtuse at times, but they can also be sharp-witted and articulate, with wonky lateral reasoning that Marin struggles to contend with, even when he’s right.

It’s genuinely exciting to watch them spar because the talk has no preordained direction, with the film’s wonderfully porous script allowing for any number of unexpected diversions or sudden flares of temper. For all this looseness of form and approach, very little here feels extraneous, and Cantet never loses hold of the tension from scene to scene. The result is an expansive 129-minute movie that felt, to me, at least a good half-hour shorter than that.

The film’s high-wire balancing of fly-on-the-wall realism and impassioned drama would collapse if the performers on screen were in any way self-conscious, but Cantet sidesteps that by having the teenagers (all non-professional volunteers from a single school; workshops for the film formed an extra-mural activity over the better part of a school year) play created characters, coloured by their own personalities and experiences — forming a tightly integrated ensemble of open, expressive performances.

Bégaudeau, for his part, may be playing a variation of himself, but his easy onscreen charisma and effortless control of the class scenes (which he, to a significant extent, “directs”) would shame many a more experienced actor.

It’s initially a little disorienting that we only ever see the characters in one environment, but as the film unfolds, the decision to keep the narrative school-bound makes sense. We only ever see the students as Marin sees them — and, for the most part, vice versa — and the gaps in knowledge here serve to amplify the tensions and misunderstandings that propel the film.

Marin strives to make the classroom a democratic learning space; in this funny, compassionate and thoroughly daring film, it becomes a democratic cinematic space too.

→ 7 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Featured · Reviews

7 responses so far

  • 1 10-21-2008 at 9:11 am

    N8 said...

    I’m sorry, Guy. As usual, I’m sure you’ve written a great review here, but I had to stop reading as soon as you called my favourite movie ever a “schmalzathon”.

  • 2 10-21-2008 at 11:33 am

    BurmaShave said...

    The merits of DPS aside (I think it’s great), how on earth could there be a more leftwing version of it?

  • 3 10-21-2008 at 12:17 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Sorry, no offence meant, guys ;)

    I can’t stand the film, never could. But hey, it gets a positive namecheck in one of my favourite films of all time (Three Colours: Red), so it’s not all bad.

  • 4 11-01-2008 at 8:52 am

    Sam Juliano said...

    Great review, but I can’t share your enthusiasm, sad to say. The film did not deserve the Palme d’Or.

  • 5 11-01-2008 at 11:16 am

    han said...

    i am sorry but the class won palme d’or unanimously.