Monday, March 30, 2009

The Class (2008)


Laurent Cantet's Palme d'Or-winning Entre les murs, or The Class, strives to be a vérité documentarian portrait of the choppy few ups and many downs of a school year for a French high school that hosts as its student body a largely immigrant population. The Class thankfully lacks the platitudinous chicanery of many a film to essay a teacher-classroom dichotomy-turned-symbiosis, resorting not to maudlin sentiment but rather a mostly absorbing day-to-day grind of a young teacher attempting to educate the unruly and rebellious students. The end result is a film that is, at once, both perfectly even in its tone and refusal to ever once be ludic or affected and quite uneven in its asperous machinations not of plot but of its multi-character study. Fortunately, the picture avails itself to give voice to both the avatar of authority and those whose resentment may slowly thaw into something more benign.

Arguably at the film's thematic heart is the Stoic Epictetus's famed comment, “Only the educated are free.” Today Epictetus may be viewed with an accommodating distance and suspicion—he did, after all, contend that a man should mourn a stranger's wife's death with the passion and angst with which he would be racked in the event of his own. Stoic extremism does test one's patience. Nevertheless, his averment on behalf of the import of education does bring The Class into a brighter context. It may be said that the film pivots around the best and worst aspects of Epictetus's numerous insights—for if the French teacher Francois Begaudeau were to view his students as mere vessels of logical, rational growth, would he care so dearly about their respective futures in French society?

The Class is fundamentally a modified documentary featuring a cast of students and the author of the book on which the film's screenplay (also co-written by him, along with Robin Campillo and director Laurent Cantet). Often penetrating, and always cognitively entertaining, one of the finest aspects of The Class is the remarkably organic way in which classroom discussions break out, diverting and darting about in myriad directions—with frequently unfortunate results. Begaudeau has nearly ceaseless difficulty in maintaining comprehensive order, without which the classroom quickly disintegrates into open hostilities between students, and all too often finds itself manifested in insolence and disrespect toward him. The mainly immigrant student population is comprised of a vividly drawn disparate group of individuals, such as Souleymane, a confrontational Malian Muslim, a black girl named Khoumba whose relationship with Begaudeau is quite rocky, Esmeralda, a loud and disruptive girl who enjoys teasing her teacher, Wei, a bright Chinese immigrant who wonders whether many of his peers understand the concept of shame and Carl, a Caribbean who joins the class later in the year after having been expelled from other schools.

The subtlest and most sublime moment of the film is one in which the class is reading aloud from Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. Khoumba has become increasingly unruly and abrasive in her demeanor and language with Begaudeau. When he calls on Khoumba to read from the book, she refuses, making Begaudeau angry and disappointed with her. Telling her to meet him after class, and allowing another student to read in her stead, the verbalized text from Frank's diary underlines what Khoumba is going through herself, as a girl who is seen in ways that obscure the truer image of her. It is an exceptionally rendered scene, punctuated by the after-class encounter in which Khoumba apologizes to Begaudeau only to leave, telling him as she departs that she did not mean it. Begaudeau's irritation and genuine distress are palpable.

The Class's “plot,” as such, is made up of various strands that are pushed along by individual students. Souleymane is considered a poor student by all of his teachers, but Begaudeau speaks up for him, noting that despite his academic deficiencies, he occasionally demonstrates a willingness to engage, and to be engaged. The film's most tender scene is of Begaudeau encouraging Souleymane in the posting of personal photographs of himself and his loved ones, culminating with the teacher telling the other students to take a look at Souleymane's work. Ironically, the film's most intense twist occurs when the two “class reps,” Esmeralda and a pretty French girl named Louise—whose job is to represent the class at faculty meetings—inform the other students what the teachers have said about their academic performances. At the meeting Begaudeau once again defended Souleymane, while admitting that he is “academically limited.” Esmeralda and Louise tell Souleymane about Begaudeau's most disparaging remark, precipitating a moment of havoc from which the final act of the film reels.

In this fraught environment of sociological and cultural conflict, the actions of Esmeralda and Louise seem to suggest that the very idealism and warmth with which Begaudeau views the students—always attempting to see the best in them and defending them to his colleagues—is perhaps misplaced. His efforts to treat the students almost as peers repeatedly appear to backfire, and it may be said that the very concept of “class reps,” for instance, is rebutted as almost senseless by Cantet's film. These, and other matters, are not offered definitive editorializing by the filmmakers, but in this case the film's thematic stimulation gives reason to make plausible assumptions about from which perspective the film is viewing such fixtures of modern schooling. Esmeralda and Louise's behavior impels Begaudeau to momentarily lose his patience and temper, which results in disaster.

The Class has been viewed as an important film; a keenly artful sociopolitical and sociocultural examination of modern French society and its apparent problems. Multiculturalism in France has achieved certain historical laudatory results, but for many of the students of today who do not view themselves as French and contend that the entire educational system is not far removed from the French imperialism of, say, West Africa, in which white Frenchmen were tasked with instructing Africans with the desire of making them into Frenchmen themselves, problems persist. In a way, The Class recalls the 2002 documentary Entre et Avoir in its chronicling of an entire academic school year, but at its absolute darkest there are hints of Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine (1995), which explored the most frightening realities of modern urban French society. Animosity between a social order controlled by liberal French bureaucrats who insist their good intentions can erase matters of tribalism and ethnic and religious conflict and the immigrant population that seethes under what they interpret as cultural aggression has exploded, most notably around the issues of economic opportunity in France's class-based social scheme. At the film's sad end, a girl walks up to Begaudeau and tells him she did not learn anything all year. She hopes she does not have to be absorbed into the systematic directing of students into vocational training. The desperation she feels is but one of many microcosms the film looks at, and ultimately, its most important.

9 comments:

Tony D'Ambra said...

A very sympathetic and nuanced review Alexander of a film I found less than enthralling.

I don't doubt its veracity or relevance, or the honesty or commitment of the film-makers, but as a verite-film it fails cinematically. There is little of visual interest and we only see the protagonists at school, so there is no real depth to the characterisations. The whole affair is sustained by the dialog, and would have worked better as a radio piece.

I also query whether the 'liberal' orientation of the makers has colored certain elements. The parents are portrayed as either arrogant or clueless, and there is the view that la belle France is somehow a wonderful haven rather than perhaps intrinsic to the problem.

This is most evident on the sole dramatic trope - the fate of the disruptive and confused child in a man's body, Suleiman. The whole story arc of whether he will be expelled is premised on the belief that he will suffer a fate worse than death if he is expelled - his father will send back home to Africa. To my mind that is exactly what the kid needs: the solid environment of his cultural inheritance and its discipline.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Tony.

Ultimately I think my words were more sympathetic than I was toward the film some weeks back after first seeing it. Visually, I agree: the film is never more than serviceable. It's truly a talkathon. The acting is good across the board, but the director doesn't lend his performers much in the way of mise-en-scene-driven subtext, so we're literally left with every line of dialogue standing largely by itself. (Which is why I liked the scene with Khoumba not reading the Anne Frank diary--it was the film's one moment of outstanding cinematic dexterity.)

Tony, I must say, I couldn't agree more with just about everything you say. I felt sad about the "confused child in a man's body," as you so eloquently refer to him, but in the end it seemed like he was receiving what he had to in order to progress as a person.

As a film, I thought The Class was, as far as it went, interesting, in spite of my problems with the visual meagerness of the enterprise. However, a month after seeing it, I'm still surprised by the remarkable compilation of accolades it has received, most notably of course the Palme d'Or at least year's Cannes Film Festival. But that is neither here nor there.

Thanks again, Tony.

Sam Juliano said...

As you know Alexander, I also had considerable problems with this, even if this film, as you accurately tab it, is a 'modified documentary.' Still, as you point out in your exceedeingly comprehensive and fair- minded essay:

"Often penetrating, and always cognitively entertaining, one of the finest aspects of The Class is the remarkably organic way in which classroom discussions break out, diverting and darting about in myriad directions—with frequently unfortunate results.

This is so true.

Yet, there is even a more remarkable passage you point out that rings even further with accuracy, and it's one that's near to my heart, as I have taught and used this book with my middle-schoolers for a number of years, and it unfailingly always moved me deeply. You state it beautifully:

"The subtlest and most sublime moment of the film is one in which the class is reading aloud from Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. Khoumba has become increasingly unruly and abrasive in her demeanor and language with Begaudeau. When he calls on Khoumba to read from the book, she refuses, making Begaudeau angry and disappointed with her. Telling her to meet him after class, and allowing another student to read in her stead, the verbalized text from Frank's diary underlines what Khoumba is going through herself, as a girl who is seen in ways that obscure the truer image of her."

Excellent examination of the characters here, especially Soulemane.

God, tremendous reference there of LA HEINE!!! i can see it's dark elements lying beneath the surface. I always thought of ENTRE ET AVOIR as overrated and static, but I've battled with others on it. Again excellent point of reference.

As you rightly say here:

"The Class has been viewed as an important film; a keenly artful sociopolitical and sociocultural examination of modern French society and its apparent problems."

I did feel that the parent-teacher talks in this film rose above the ones in other films, where there seems to be a deliberate plot underway, which rings false.

Still, here is the final paragraph from my own review, written after I managed to see this at the NYFF:

"Alas, the film is also rather grueling to sit through, not the least of which there are too many confrontational and non-productive faculty meetings, and we really get to see little teaching from Martin, who of course is involved in trying to break down his student body’s various character flaws. In this sense, while there is undeniably a strong sense of purpose in this highly unconventional film, it is unyielding in its style and rhythm, which for a film that runs for over two hours is almost too much of a good thing. One eventually gets lost in all the histrionics, and there’s no emotional underpinning for one to emote. It’s a shame, because The Class has much to offer, since it’s one of the only classroom films where the students do most of the talking."

I didn't come to this film looking for DEAD POETS SOCIETY, or that film with Hillary Swank (which ironically also used Anne frank to great effect, even to have the real 'Mief' visit from Holland.

In any case, your magnifing glass again was working overtime. Exceptional and brilliant review of THE CLASS here at Coleman's Corner.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the tremendous response, Sam. I knew you liked much of the film but also had problems with it. Which is not very dissimilar from my own perspective. I have just read your own review and I love the way you closed it, as you were wise to post that passage here.

I actually agree that the 2002 film is overrated and static.

Thank you for all the kind words! I'm happy that you especially liked the part about the Anne Frank diary and saw yourself in much of that drama as a teacher. Thanks very much as always, Sam.

mc said...

Saw this film a couple of weeks ago. I enjoyed it and thought your review added more to my experience - while reading your review it added ideas for me to consider.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, MC. That means a lot.

Maven said...

I thought the movie was interesting but also kinda boring and flat. This is a great look at it tho.

Darryl said...

I hated this movie. So boring. But subtitles give me a headache.

Nice review though.

Rene said...

Fine review. The film was mediocre but fueled by intriguing subject matter.

As someone who has taught in France I can say that many of the issues and conditions portrayed are sadly accurate.

I must applaud any film reviewer who quotes Epictetus! Bravo.