Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Class

Stupid work keeping me a half hour later than I wanted so I couldn't go to both The Class and the Charles Stross signing at Pandemonium. I nearly bailed on the film, to be honest, but with the sci-fi marathon coming up this weekend, I didn't know just how much opportunity I'd have.

Entre les Murs (The Class)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 January 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

The Class does seem somewhat different from conventional teacher/student movies from the beginning, but it takes a while before the biggest reason why sinks in. Usually, the subject of a movie is exceptional in some way - that's why you make movies about them in particular. It's not until about midway through that the audience begins to realize what director Laurent Cantet is doing - not telling the story of a great teacher, or even an especially good one, but an average teacher.

That teacher is François Marin; he teaches French in a middle school that serves an ethnically diverse but not particularly prosperous section of Paris. He's been around long enough to be a class supervisor and not to feel the need to announce his service time when the faculty has their meet-and-greet at the start of the school year. Some of the students in the particular class that we follow have had him before; some are new. There's smart-aleck Esmerelda, who wants to be a cop when she grows up; Wey, a Chinese immigrant whose French is still a little rough; Khoumba, who has grown standoffish and angry over the summer; Louise, a class representative (along with Esmerelda); Soulemayne, a Malian boy who is disruptive when he does show up to class; and Carl, who transfers in after being expelled from another school. They are not especially gifted kids, but it's not a remedial class.

We follow Marin and his students over the course of a school year, from the first class to the last, with teacher meetings, parent/teacher conferences, and disciplinary hearings along the way. Cantet gives the film a documentary feel without ever specifically using documentary devices: There are no staged interviews or acknowledgment of the camera, no informational subtitles. There are cuts and close-ups within scenes that indicate multiple takes. On the other hand, it does have the "available footage" feel of a documentary; storylines dangle unresolved or happen off-screen. Amusing or instructive scenes that don't have much to do with anything else are thrown in. The plot develops late and is clearly subservient to giving us a look at this environment; much of the pleasure of The Class is, fittingly, that of learning something new rather than a story well-told.

Further blurring the line between narrative and documentary is the cast. M. Marin is played by François Bégaudeau, who worked on adapting the screenplay from his own book about his experiences as a teacher. As the credits scroll, one sees that the characters names match those of the actors; I would not be shocked if either the actual students from Bégaudeau's book were playing themselves, the cast was mainly amateurs instructed to just be themselves, or Cantet changed the character names to facilitate improvisation. Whatever the reason, the result is engrossing; we almost never see telltale signs of an actor performing. I suspect several cast member must be a ringers - Franck Keïta as Soulemayne, for instance, not just from the differing names but because they're too central to the last act to leave anything to chance - but it's almost impossible to tell with any certainty.

That Bégaudeau is playing, essentially, a version of himself makes the film's honesty somewhat surprising. It's not that the film neither indicts nor praises French public education - as with just about every story about teachers ever made, the system is shown as short of resources and having a hard time adapting to the day's youth. Though we're prepared early on to sympathize with M. Marin - he's contrasted against a less empathetic teacher and always argues benefit to the student over convenience to the faculty - it eventually becomes clear that he's pretty darn flawed: He can be confrontational and unwilling to admit that he's wrong. Most of the audience can likely pinpoint the exact moment when things get out of hand in the last act, and it can be laid squarely at his feet. Not solely - from that point forward, nobody comes out looking particularly righteous, and there's an extraneous bit of melodrama - but it's a shocking moment for the audience: Films about teachers have that mistake in the first act, not the last, and for a semi-autobiographical story, it's far from self-serving.

It doesn't make him into the villain of the piece, but the last act is a dash of cold water on what we're used to. It's a sobering thought, that even the dedicated teachers have blind spots and failures. Stories about those teachers and students probaby tell us more about the problems (and what works) with public schools than the inspirational ones.

Also at eFilmCritic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

outstanding movie!