One of the films nominated in the upcoming Academy Awards’ best foreign film category, The Class is also the first great film I’ve seen in 2009. It’s a film that compelled me from start to finish and left me feeling more curious and inquisitive about the world. Not every film does this for me.
The film—which won the Palme d'Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival—is a slice-of-life look at one classroom in a junior high in Paris’ 20th arrondissement, a working class neighborhood on the city’s far eastern edge. This is blue collar suburban Paris, where immigrants outnumber “natives” and racial tension is thick. And yet the school and students look strikingly similar to a typical American junior high—while also markedly different.
The Class is one of those films that looks and feels like it might be a documentary; and in some senses, it is. Sure, it is “fiction” and the story somewhat scripted, but the film features real people—not actors—in their real roles as teachers, students, parents, etc. It feels like a journalistic investigation into the heart of French public education in 2008; which is pretty much what it is, fiction or otherwise.
The film is based on a book, Between the Walls, written by a real French schoolteacher about his experiences in the classroom over the course of a year. What makes The Class such an interesting adaptation is that the author of the book (François Bégaudeau) is also the star of the film, portraying a version of himself as a young, idealistic teacher trying to inspire a motley crew of variously motivated 14-year-olds. Likewise, the students in his classroom, as well as their parents, and the other teachers in the school, are all playing versions of themselves. This is a real school; These are real lives. It’s a strange blend of life lived and life portrayed. It’s sort of like The Hills meets Mad Hot Ballroom meets Frontline.
Director Laurent Cantet worked with all these amateur “actors” through a system of weekly workshops and improvisations which unfolded over the course of an entire schoolyear. This thoroughly French approach to filmmaking (can you imagine an American studio ever having the patience for a year-long shoot for an arthouse film?) probably accounts for the utterly organic, cinema verite feel of The Class. The fluid cameras feel unobtrusive; the direction invisible; anything “cinematic” comes across only in the occasional shift of focus depth or otherwise artistic shot setup.
Mainly, the film just “lets be” its subjects. The Class is unencumbered by any sort of real plot or script. Rather, it is a series of events, of conversations, of laughter and hardship and students who are alternately unruly, apathetic, and ambitious.
It’s a film that presents us with a complicated social environment: a public school classroom. It’s amazing to watch the nuance and complexity with which Cantet and his improvising subjects navigate the litany of power struggles, adolescent energy, class, race, and French national identity (it’s a French class) being negotiated on a daily basis throughout the school year. Like all teachers, Bégaudeau has his share of model students, trouble students, and downright problem students. And like all classrooms, there are various cliques, stereotypes, and neuroses (pride, fear, inadequacy) both expressed and unexpressed.
But at the end of the day, a class is just a temporary thing—a fleeting band of humanity tossed together for a time, to learn and struggle and push forward in life. Nothing of great surprise or significance happens in The Class, you might think. It’s just a year of somewhat stereotypical school. But this is the drama of life, of thoroughly contemporary life as it is fought through in 2008. And The Class reminds us that the drama of everyday life is sometimes the most miraculous kind.