If Laurent Cantet’s vision of present-day schooling as captured in the Oscar-nominated The Class is anything to go by, I’m glad I’m out of it: I’d never have survived.
From 19whatchyamacallit to 19somethingorother I dutifully sat in class, doing quite well in my English, not so well in my Maths and so-so in Modern Studies, taking in just enough to pass the exams and generally not causing too much trouble for anyone. I was never bullied and, apart from detesting every minute of PE, it was a breeze.
Flash forward to 2008 France and The Class introduces us to an inner city Parisian school where teacher François Marin (played by the film’s co-writer François Bégaudeau) is trying valiantly to teach literature to his teenage, racially mixed, pupils.
François encounters problems early on when the children start to question anything even remotely unclear to them. While an inquiring mind is to be encouraged, François’ enthusiasm for engaging in banter with the students starts to blur the boundaries between pupil and teacher and it’s not long before events start to get out of hand, with unfortunate repercussions for everyone involved.
Using a semi-documentary style, director Laurent Cantet also introduces elements of improvisation to the adaptation of his and Bégaudeau’s screenplay, allowing a natural feel to the film that makes the viewer question what is real and what is not.
The decision to use the script as a springboard for new ideas also allows the children to bring themselves to the film, or at least elements of themselves. While some of the characters are played by real pupils, others are portrayed by actors, though it’s virtually impossible to distinguish between the two, all of them worthy of screen time.
Bégaudeau is also a good find and it’s hard to believe he’s an amateur. It’s easy to feel sympathy for the man when he starts getting grilled by the students in his care.
Race is one of the topics touched on in The Class, but it’s never heavy-handed or preachy. The children involved have grown up in a society that has become ever more racially fractured, the debate about who is “superior” seemingly as prevalent today as it has ever been.
There are also some interesting comments on the role of the school in today’s society and of whether the types of subjects we teach our children are still as relevant as they were 10 or 20 years ago.
Using handheld cameras, fast cutting, close-ups and other semi-documentary techniques, there’s a claustrophobic feel to much of The Class, making the viewer part of the group being watched. Tensions rise and sides are taken, but quite who you agree with isn’t a forgone conclusion.
Cutaways to the staff room and the playground are the only times we get respite from the classroom, snippets of dialogue from other teachers, each coming at the situation from a slightly different angle, helping to create a more believable world.
The film cleverly avoids giving easy answers to subjects raised, leaving a question mark over who’s right and wrong. This is just one element of a much bigger debate about modern society, one that sadly can’t be solved by the completion of an equation, the dotting of the i’s or crossing of t’s.
The Class is an intense experience that doesn’t talk down to its audience yet still remains a decent little drama: for that it deserves to be top of everyone’s league table and to get off PE for at least a fortnight.