French director Laurent Cantet focuses his patient eye on education
Laurent Cantet's The Class, winner of the Golden Palm at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, doesn't resist its somewhat formulaic plot about a middle-class white teacher struggling to instruct his diverse and working-class students. But it is particularly attuned to the nuances of the classroom itself, the tensions that bubble up and over in a moment's notice, made all the more exhilarating by students who have no reason to show restraint. François Bégaudeau, who plays the cocky and abrasive teacher, pushes the method acting technique to an extreme. Not only did he write the screenplay and novel on which the movie is based, but he also spent a year teaching at a school very much like the one portrayed in the movie. Directed by Laurent Cantet, no stranger to occupational drudgery, The Class is captivating because of its realism, not in spite of it.
In two earlier Cantet outings, 1999's Human Resources and 2001's Time Out, which both address labor and late capitalism, he set himself up to be a somber critic of contemporary French society, an Éric Rohmer for middle management. In Time Out, the lead character loses his job, but refusing to accept that he's unemployed, drives around all day as he escapes the fact that his life now has no purpose. Although 8-years-old now, Time Out's corporate mirages presciently show the world of Ponzi princes such as Bernie Madoff.
In 2005's Heading South, Cantet explores the lives of older women who go to the Caribbean to feel young and sexy again, a welcome change from the office park. But despite portraying lonely women instead of lonely men and exchanging gray office parks for sunny beaches, Cantet remained pat in his belief that late capitalism's alienation cancer can strike anyone, anywhere.
Not so for the teenage students in The Class, whose restless energy gives the movie more life than all of Cantet's previous work put together. The classroom here is always on the verge of becoming uncontrollable, and Bégaudeau portrays a teacher who is more concerned with making it through the day than making a difference. That twist reverses the usual course for classroom movies, where a teacher starts out vulnerable and aloof and only becomes engaged in his students' lives once they show him that they're worth the time he might invest in them. The diversity of the student population might be more shocking to European audiences than American ones, but it does give Cantet the opportunity to explore other issues that trouble modern France, like immigration, without stepping foot outside of the classroom.
The Class is also compelling because it takes a systemic approach to its subject. You expect to see Bégaudeau struggle to get his students to behave in the classroom, but Cantet is also careful to point out that the classroom is only one piece, however sacrosanct, of a school system that has its own prerogatives. One of the movie's most riveting scenes takes place in a faculty meeting, a location little seen in school movies. Cantet has always excelled at illustrating how what appear to be internal matters have external consequences and, with Bégaudeau's script, he's able to connect the school to the outside world.
Cantet also breaks from his usual pattern by making a movie where something actually happens. Bégaudeau spends much of his screen time actually teaching, an activity much talked about in the movies, but rarely seen for more than a few seconds. Here Cantet's patience as a director pays off, as he allows the frenetic activity of the classroom to be fully absorbed, capturing that teaching isn't about conveying material to students as much as it is taking control of the classroom long enough to explain to students why they should care about it. While Bégaudeau does appear to make a difference in the year he spends in the classroom, it's not clear to anyone how much that difference is and whether it matters.
In fact, as much as The Class is a classroom movie, it's ambivalent about what that actually means. Are teachers responsible for their students? Can schools change the world around them? Cantet does not ask these questions directly, but the countless interactions between students and teachers--and administrators and parents--can't help but raise them. The movie reminds us that we ask schools to do so much, but what goes on there is often a mystery.