Friday, April 3, 2009

The Class: Top marks

The Class (2008) • View trailer for The Class
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.3.09
Buy DVD: The Class • Buy Blu-Ray: The Class (Entre Les Murs) [Blu-ray]

Every teacher and high school student in the viewing audience  and all former high school students, which covers pretty much everybody  will be impressed by the authenticity of The Class.

Perhaps even more so, given the film's French origins.
Franois (Franois Begaudeau, standing) attempts to make a grammatical point
while the often troublesome Esmerelda, far right, waits for a stray remark that
she can pounce on and exploit, hopefully disrupting the entire class for five
or 10 minutes. As this film repeatedly reveals, the process of teaching too often
becomes a battle of wits ... and pity the teacher who isn't at the top of the
game at every second.

Actually, that's fascinating: Because while Laurent Cantet's documentary-style drama is set at an inner-city Parisian school, with handy English subtitles translating the constant battle of verbal wit and opportunity between teacher and student, the setting is familiar to an almost uncanny degree. Strip away the subtitles and remove the dialogue track, and the images themselves  the instructors and most certainly these multi-ethnic pupils  could be from any school in the United States, or (I suspect) in many other parts of the world.

Some things are universal, and the roar of a crowded classroom's barely restrained youthful energy  and a lone adult's often futile efforts to contain it  belongs toward the top of such a list.

Indeed, no single room could be large enough to withstand so much adolescent tension. More than any other school-themed film I can recall, The Class proves that teachers deserve combat pay.

Credit Cantet's intriguing style for improvisation, which he shares with British director Mike Leigh. The Class feels more like documentary than drama  although it's definitely the latter  because the film is lifted so persuasively from real life.

The Class is based on Between the Walls, an autobiographical book by French schoolteacher Franois Begaudeau, who co-scripted the film and stars as a version of himself: not always a flattering portrait, either, which goes a long way toward explaining why this guy is so perfectly suited to teaching. He has no illusions about himself, only a passion for sharing the precious gift of knowledge.

Cantet and Begaudeau spent 12 months shaping their film, drawing from a "cast" of student volunteers who spent an academic year workshopping their characters while adding bits and pieces of themselves and (no doubt) friends and family members. When Franois conducts a parent/teacher session in one sequence  one of the few designed to elicit rueful laughter  the young actors' actual parents play their characters' mothers and fathers.

In lesser hands, the upshot of such a freeform collaboration would wind up clumsy, stilted and laughably amateurish, the young stars too aware of the intrusive cameras to behave in a manner even close to looking or sounding natural.

Ah, but Cantet clearly isn't a lesser being. God only knows how many miles of footage he shot, before he had enough to shape this compelling finished product, but the results speak for themselves: The Class went on to win the coveted Palme D'Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, and became France's Academy Award entry in the foreign film category.

Granted, Cantet's film feels rough around the edges; he clearly designed it that way. The viewing experience is a bit ragged as well, but there's no denying the degree to which we identify and bond with these characters, and become invested in their fate. This story, and these characters, feel far more "real" than any of the staged and idiotic "reality TV" shows that captivate so many American viewers.

I wish The Class could have been a series, rather than merely a two-hour big-screen experience.

The film starts at the beginning of an academic calendar, with Franois and his fellow veteran teachers welcoming their newby colleagues. The smarter members of the latter group have a glazed, deer-in-the-headlights look; a few others, with no concept of what is to come, are blissfully ignorant. (That will change. Rapidly.)

Franois begins his first class session, greeting a few familiar faces from the previous year, while seizing command even before the kids have taken their seats: no caps or hoods allowed in the room, no standing up without requesting permission, no disrespect allowed when speaking to anybody else.

Teachers in the audience will smile at this need to establish drill-sergeant barriers; high school-age kids will smirk; clueless parents will assume that this tempestuous gaggle of barely restrained hormones has been exaggerated for greater impact. (It hasn't.)

Barely before he can catch his breath, Franois is challenged by Esmerelda, a defiant girl with wincingly unattractive teeth. She baits him; he engages her but refuses to be drawn into her delaying game. Other students join in the skirmish, everybody suddenly aware that the first of many power struggles has begun.

The classroom sessions continue like this, day after day, with verbal shots lobbed in both directions like tennis balls during the final set of a championship game. Whether teaching verb tenses, the distinctions between written and spoken communication, or The Diary of Anne Frank  or simply trying to maintain control  Franois is a constant blur of passionate speech and motion: always trying to engage his students, either individually or as a cluster; forever trying to worm his way into their confidence, if not absolute trust.

The tennis metaphor can't be accidental: Cantet stages all the classroom scenes the same way, with Franois forever on the left side of the screen, the blackboard at his back, and the rows of students always on the right side. If an invisible net ever existed, no doubt it was trampled to bits long ago.

The claustrophobic environment is equally deliberate: Aside from short detours in hallways or offices, the film spends all its time in Franois' classroom. We never see these kids in their home environments.

Other aggressively visible students break from the anonymous pack: Khoumba, an overly proud girl who feels her nationality has been threatened, and who has a humbling after-class encounter with Franois; Arthur, a quiet Goth kid; Wei, a bright and chatty Chinese boy who seems genuinely interested in learning; Nassim, a belligerent soccer fan; Carl, a deceptively mild mid-term transfer student trying to quell his aggressive tendencies; and most particularly Souleyman, perhaps standing in for all the 'lost' students who never fit in.

Franois is simultaneously instructor, counselor, surrogate parent and disciplinarian. His teaching style emerges less from books and more from instinct; he's always seeking a comparison to real life that will intrigue or inspire his students.

The dialogues are captivating. Early on, Esmerelda and Khoumba complain that when Franois makes up a sentence to diagram on the board, he always picks "white" names like Bill or Bob; the entire class agrees, and Franois' mildly vexed expression reveals irritation not at the kids, for calling him on this tendency, but with himself, for having been caught doing such a thing.

Elsewhere, between classes, Cantet's camera follows Franois into the teachers' lounge, where war stories alternate with wincingly dumb arguments with the guy who stocks the coffee machine, over a sudden increase in the price of a cup, and whether they all should create a "coffeemaker fund" and deal with the matter themselves. The discussion looks and sounds real enough to be embarrassing ... because we've all been there, and been just as impassioned over something equally trivial.

Moments of elation alternate with sorrow. Franois finally breaks through with Souleyman, thanks to the boy's interest in photography; we catch our breath, hoping this will be a turning point. Later, Franois errs badly when, finally yielding to brief disgust, he compares two of his female students to "skanks," a word that deeply offends them.

We're reminded that one can be competent, capable and respected for 364 days ... but if that person loses his temper on the 365th day, it's as if all the previous good work never existed. Suddenly the entire system  students and other teachers  rises up and turns against Franois.

Although the institutional atmosphere and many student/teacher dynamics are unflinchingly raw and typical of most high school settings, one operational quirk seems so wrong-headed that we can't help but blink in disbelief.

Two of Franois' students  the troublemaking Esmerelda being one of them  are allowed, as "class representatives," to sit in during the late-term teachers meeting that determines the fate  pass, fail, reprimand, expulsion  of each and every kid in the school. Naturally, this creates tension when Franois, feeling his way around a particularly frustrating case, suggests something that Esmerelda repeats, only in damaging part, to the student in question.

I cannot imagine a recipe for more certain disaster, and if this is an ongoing element of the French school system, it's utterly daft (although it certainly makes this film's melodramatic pot boil).

Every viewer will walk away with favorite characters and encounters, but one stands out for its degree of heartbreak: Franois' final conversation, on the last day of class, with a hitherto quiet girl largely ignored by the film until this moment. Her soul-revealing confession, delivered with such despair, hits the teacher  and us  like a physical blow.

After such a moment, Cantet wisely concludes his film with a shot of the now-empty classroom, chairs turned over and tables askew, abandoned for three summer months ... until the process begins anew.

You won't soon forget this one.

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