Awarded the Palm D’or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Laurent Cantet’s fluid and free-form drama, The Class, commits itself to the natural, unaffected representation of the student/teacher relationship. Free from the binds of a traditional dramatic arc, Cantet’s film finds a rhythmic pace and settles into an agreeable ebb and flow. The narrative alternates between extended takes inside the classroom and a sort of behind-the-scenes look at the meetings held in the teacher’s lounge. Both situations are presented from the perspective (and viewed through the moral lens) of Mr. Marin, a French teacher at the school, who at the start of the film is beginning his fourth year. This is a refreshing approach since so many films of this particular genre (if you choose to call it that) find a fresh, upstart educator arriving at a run-down school with the dream of making a difference; Marin seems to just want to make it through the year. That’s not to say that he doesn’t want to genuinely help these kids and give them a good education, he’s just not naive about his role; he knows his limits. And however you feel about films like Lean on Me, Dead Poets Society, and (yuck) Dangerous Minds, you’ll find Cantet’s dynamic to be a nice change of pace, as well as an effective way of capturing the natural back-and-forth between teacher and student.
Like Nicolas Philibert’s stellar 2003 documentary, To Be And To Have, Cantet’s film finds beauty and fascination in the simple process of imparting knowledge to a future generation. But whereas Have is set in a rural French village, and focuses on a kindly, middle-aged preschool teacher, The Class finds its principal character braving more violent waters. Unfurling over the course of a riveting two hours, Cantet’s narrative feature utilizes its modest setting, a middle school in a tough inner-city Paris neighborhood, and explores universal themes of race relations and economic strife. Acting as a microcosm of modern Parisian society, the class which Mr. Marin teaches is populated by Black, white, and Asian students, who demonstrate the desire to coexist that their parents perhaps do not, as well as cautious paranoia that unearths hidden prejudices. Fascinatingly, arguments over which nation has a better sports team serve as a sort of compromise, stifling much more volatile disagreements and cultural rifts. They also serve as a reminder of the domesticity of these immigrant-born natives, one of which struggles to retain his heritage by tattooing his faith-based beliefs on his arm.
Marin and the rest of the faculty at this particular school could be viewed as those on the front lines, but to say that is to imply a metaphorical war between the two, which overly-simplifies the complex job these teachers have. They’re tasked with making very tough decisions, such as the intense moral quandary which confronts them at the end of the film (its one dramatic conceit). The Class imparts to its audience the gravity of a teacher’s choice, especially when it comes to deciding whether an act of insubordination can be treated with disciplinary action or whether that will simply inflame the behavior. More than almost any other profession, teaching requires emotional nuance and empathy to do the job well, and Cantet and his cast clearly understand this. So much here could have gone wrong. The performances (everyone here is a non-actor) could have tipped too far in one direction or the other, by being either histrionic or amateurishly distracting. The script could have felt over-cooked, overtly telegraphing important information about its many characters, or singling out those who would later become more important to the story. And the filmmaking could have stifled the work’s artistic merit with poorly framed shots or awkward transitioning. None of these problems present themselves, as Cantet is an extremely talented craftsman who knows how to shoot and pace a film.
In fact, it’s difficult to pinpoint any flaws The Class possesses, at the very least any that it does have are not worth expounding on. Cantet understands the necessity to find a cast who can play variations on themselves without actor-y pretense. These are traits which certainly don’t apply to François Bégaudeau, who plays Mr. Marin in the film. His is a performance that ever-so-carefully balances sincere good-intentions with cynicism and pride, flaws and strengths of the human condition which congeal to form a full-blooded and complex character, one who embodies various contradictions. Bégaudeau may not be an actor, but he draws his inspiration for the part from a different source; he’s an author, and he in fact wrote the autobiographical book of the same name which The Class is based on. So it’s his knowledge and experience which imbue the film with both authenticity and credibility, but it’s Cantet who brings it all together. Knowing when to back off and let a scene play out is a vital skill, but so is the instinct to know when it’s time to get on to the next scene, and the director musters a formidable momentum all-the-more commendable when one considers the unique dramatic approach.
This is Cantet’s fourth film, following 2002’s exceptionally crafted Time Out, which ably critiqued economic and social stigma in the modern world via its allegorical story of a man who loses his job and can’t bring himself to tell his family (all the more topical now), but it was dwarfed by an often suffocating and unnatural stillness. While 2005’s ’70s-set Haitian drama, Heading South, presented a vision of race relations and exploitation between middle-aged white women and their young black escorts, yet suffered from an all-too literal approach rote with heavy-handed symbolism and predictable plot turns. Both films saw a talented director exploring important and thought-provoking themes, but leaning a bit too hard on filmmaking/screenwriting 101 crutches (the fourth-wall breaking confessionals in South, the convenient occupational opportunity in Time). In contrast, The Class finds Cantet figuring it all out, fulfilling the promise he showed in his earlier films, and relying on his material and his strengths as a filmmaker to communicate with the audience on a visceral level.