Laurent Cantet's The Class is the best movie about school ever made, especially when compared to the paltry Hollywood sputum about the dangerously minded freedom writings of dead poets' hollandaise opuses. However, as effusive as other film critics have been of the film, none of your Roger Eberts, Peter Traverses, or Manhola Dargises are working high school or junior high teachers who write about movies for fun and profit. Well, I am. So will you believe me when I say the complex depiction of the educational workplace here is pretty much unprecedented?
François Bégaudeau, author of the memoir upon which The Class is based, plays François Marin, a middle school French teacher in a Parisian neighborhood whose young people are proudly (and conveniently) multicultural. But the similarity between The Class and many other "teachers make a difference!" movies ends with its casting — and even then, these middle school kids actually look and twitch like — actually are — middle school kids.
Marin can be an effective teacher at times; he's brighter and ostensibly more tolerant than many of his colleagues, but he's sometimes more cutting than inspirational, with a sharp tongue that almost cuts his throat. Marin fights nobly against staffers who demand more restrictive and punitive disciplinary policies. He prefers to work in a noisy, disorderly classroom instead of a silent, drearily obedient one. His typical response to disorder is to shout "Eh! Eh! Eh!" at his kids when the tide of 14-year-old humanity threatens to drown him out. They'll do anything to distract him, and most of the time he plays along because he's gambling that their furious energy can be redirected in service of the wonders of The Diary of Anne Frank or the imperfect verb tense.
His classroom is cramped and swarming with kids rocking on ceaseless waves of torpor and enthusiasm — among them the cantankerous Souleymane (Franck Keita), the hypocrisy divining rod Esmerelda (Esmerelda Ouretani), and the diffident Khoumba (Rachel Regulier). The proposed lessons of each day dart around at light speed thanks to Marin's tireless engagement with these cranky, bright kids, few of whom would ever be labeled gifted or talented.
During the long, elaborate classroom teaching scenes, Cantet embeds his camera among the crowded tables and furtive cell-phone users, framing everything tightly and lopping off the tops of most of his subjects' heads. With only a handful of exceptions, no student is shown individually; there's always an arm, some bangs, a distracted gesture or a slumped shoulder somewhere else in the frame. The tightly wound, potentially confrontational chicken-coop feel of a rowdy, overcrowded classroom has never been better captured.
The meandering plot of the film is prodded awake now and then by Marin's varying levels of success with individual students. He has to be clever; like the design on Khoumba's blouse and purse, these kids are equal parts shooting stars and skull-and-crossbones, equally capable of sweetness and mercenary behavior within seconds. When the nearly imperceptible raising of emotional and social stakes between Marin and his students explodes in exasperated and mutinous anger during a debate about soccer, it's hardly astonishing.
What is astonishing about the infusion of tragedy into this formless, seemingly plotless quasi-documentary is how quickly it's forgotten — it's all part of the year. After an expelled student is last seen walking away from the school as yellow arrows painted on the concrete point in the direction he's now forbidden to take, Cantet flashes forward to the end of the school year, when Marin's killing time and asking everyone whether they learned anything. There's a staff-student soccer game in the courtyard, and then everyone goes home.
Whatever its flaws and injustices, its moments of weakness and moments of grace, the institution and its inmates survive for another term. And that's a simple fact no film has dared to teach.
Opens Friday, March 6th