‘The Class’ informs without the lecture

The usual stereotypes brought to mind by the title of the recent winner of the Palm d’Or, The Class, give way under the weighted observations that give the film its merit. There are no hip-hop dance-offs here, no tales of the inspirational Hollywood rags-to-riches brand, but simply, remarkably, an aesthetically austere portrayal of a public Parisian school that cuts to the heart of issues rattling French and, by extension, global education.

Originally entitled Entre les Murs, or Between the Walls, the film, now playing at Images Cinema, focuses on the varying political structures that influence the classroom experience at Francoise Dolto Junior High, from the student-teacher relationship to cultural conflicts. No neat-bow answers are presented to counter the issues raised throughout the movie; instead, the discussions, which range between the meaning of words like “condescension” to the imperfect indicative, illuminate both the chaotic shifts in students’ perceptions of their roles in school as well as the teachers’ frequent misinterpretations of the needs and sensitivities of the students.

The care with which director Laurent Cantet treats these often-ambiguous relationships unfolds the central soul of The Class. The feel is documentary, the camerawork shaky; many a moment hovers in the shadowy recesses of the teacher’s lounge, an empty classroom, the library. Cantet’s direction steers a screenplay lacking in substantial plot towards a profound insight into the postcolonial, multicultural arena of education.
The glamour of the movies is here set aside to make room for a style that feels much more genuine, a point that is emphasized by the improvisation that fleshed out the original screenplay’s skeleton: The actors, all nonprofessionals, were asked to interpret scenes from the original source of the film, a memoir by real-life public school teacher, François Bégaudeau. Bégaudeau himself makes an appearance as the teacher of the 4/3 French class, a Monsieur Marin, whose classroom Cantet so often focuses on. Here, 13- and 14-year-old voices demand to be heard over the presentation of lessons they think too frequently represent the sentiments of a historical France they feel no connection to.

When Marin tries, for example, to teach an exercise in French class, he is stopped by students frustrated with an illustrated sentence written on the blackboard: “Bill had a succulent cheeseburger.” Why must it be a cheeseburger? And why the name Bill, they ask? Two of the more combative students, Esmerelda (Esmeralda Ouertani) and Khoumba (Rachel Regulier), suggest less Western names Aissata and Rachid as replacements. Marin’s counter of, “But you’re French, too,” only draws from Esmerelda a response that as an ethnic minority, she in fact doesn’t see herself in the country’s traditional white values.

As the narrative follows a series of teacher meetings and classroom discussions, in which topics from Plato to the spirit of the law are raised and questioned, the issue of finding a self-identity and earning respect is consistently challenged. One of the more engaging sequences in the film centers on an assignment for each student to create their own self-portrait; this assignment, rather than reaffirming the vision of these kids as “animals,” as one frustrated teacher laments, instead reveals the disparities between school lessons on The Diary of Anne Frank, poetic terms and conjugations and their daily lives. Esmerelda wants to be a cop to prove they’re not all bad; Wey (Wey Huang) likes video games and has a hard time communicating with others because his non-native French is poor; and Souleymane (Franck Keïta) rejects the project altogether by simply writing, “Nobody knows me but me,” a sign of the rebellious streak that eventually leads him, and the film’s climax, into trouble.

The Class, nominated for a foreign-film Oscar, rings with its devout attention to detail, both in dialogue and its quietly perceptive close-ups of various individuals. Through a sense of social realism, it is able to peel back the layers of inspirationalism found in movies like Dead Poets Society and the more recent Freedom Writers to reveal the very ordinary and very essential questions in current academic climates, whether in France or in schools a little closer to home.