By Daniel Barnes
While Hollywood films are typically and predictably dismissive of school teachers (and all public servants, really) as pedants, snobs, fascists, and/or layabouts, there also exists a mostly icky vein of educator-as-hero stories. Movies ranging from Goodbye, Mr. Chips to Dangerous Minds sentimentalize teachers as the white knights (the key word being “white”) of adolescent development, tireless and generally thankless workers whose life’s reward is the sum total of the young lives they’ve affected, always for the better.
Although inspired by a memoir written by its star Francois Beagaudeau, who taught junior high French in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Paris, the 2008 Palme d’Or winner The Class is not a tear-streaked heroic tale of overcoming odds. Beagaudeau knows that most of his students face a bleak, opportunity-free future, and there is no inspirational lesson plan that can prevent it.
Instead of simply filming the book, Cantet (Time Out, Heading South) builds the film from improvisation by his cast of non-actors (he shot with three cameras for maximum coverage). That fluid structure and loose visual style is important – Cantet offers some of the most restrained handheld in recent memory, and the film leaps through the school year in sudden blinks, with the opportunity for Beagaudeau to reach these kids becoming as ungraspable as melting snow.
Beagaudeau’s students are tough, bored, and above all argumentative, and The Class shows the eternal struggle and bottomless patience it takes to teach them anything. He has more success with the kids by talking instead of teaching, and much of this fly-on-the-wall film is made up of their testy Socratic dialogues, which often veer uncomfortably and unprofessionally into the personal.
In a key scene, a colleague of Beagaudeau’s bursts into the teachers’ lounge and proceeds to have a mini-breakdown, disparaging the students as monsters and threatening to quit. The other teachers regard him with a sort of trembling withdrawal – they’re all on that knife’s edge, too, and however inappropriate his words, it is clear that they have thought the same thing a million times.
“We’re not animals,” moans the distraught teacher, but the students feel similarly branded, herded, and caged. Beagaudeau is teaching them a formal style of French that they will almost certainly never use, and he acknowledges as much, so his curriculum subtly begins to revolve around self-discovery. Still, understanding is hard-fought and possibly unwinnable, and the brief glimpses of intellectual horizon are more coldly realistic than inspirational, as when the students read a passage from Anne Frank’s diary about a “good side” that will never be allowed to emerge.
The Class does not hand down judgment on any of its characters, even Beagaudeau, and intimates that his liberal-humanist leniency may cause more problems than it solves. “You just want to buy social harmony,” complains one of Beagaudeau’s fellow teachers. All of the educators and parents care, despite their disagreements, including the guy set up as Beagaudeau’s obvious foil. Although the film covers an entire school year, Cantet never exits the campus, and there is the impression that the teachers may not be allowed outside lives. The celebration of a female teacher’s pregnancy is dwarfed and solemnized by the news that one of the student’s parents has been arrested.
After a brisk and refreshingly rootless two-thirds, the third act of The Class focuses on the possible expulsion of a disinterested Mali-ian student named Souleymane, and the film becomes a little more conventional and contained. Souleymane’s story is still compelling, and illuminates the no-win decisions institutions are forced to make in order to maintain a system of discipline, especially with someone whose culture is considered alien. It is indicative of the film’s clear-eyed ambivalence that it ends on shots of empty classrooms, as teachers and students play soccer outside, making rare noises of pure joy.