“THE CLASS”— A Look at “Teaching”

“THE CLASS”

A Look at “Teaching”

Amos Lassen

François Marin (François Bégaudeau) starts teaching a class about the French language at a diverse group of high school students at the beginning of the new school year. Those students include Carl (Carl Nanor), Arthur (Arthur Fogel), Esméralda (Esméralda Ouertani), Khoumba (Rachel Regulier), Wei (Wei Huang) and Souleymane (Franck Keita) and others. Each student has some kind of complex personalities that slowly externalize and they never really become stereotypes. Wei, for example, seems like a well-behaved and diligent student. Souleymane, who’s originally from Mali, and often causes trouble in class. Arthur feels like an outsider with his Goth style while Esméralda behaves stubbornly and annoys the teacher. There’s more to these students than meets the eye and it’s somewhat interesting to observe how they change or don’t change by the end of the school year. Co-writer/director Laurent Cantet shot in  cinema vérité style that intentionally creates some chaos while creating dramatic tension that comes out of the interactions and dynamics between François and his students. There is always some form of structure and order to be found within chaos. It takes a while to get absorbed in the film amidst all the chaos while getting to know the students.

I suddenly realized that I had actually, to some degree, lived this film. When I first began teaching I was sent to a ghetto school in New Orleans where more than 70% of the students either were problems or lived in problem homes in the largest housing project in the city. I found myself in this film over and over again. The majority of scenes take place inside the classroom for a long period of time. More comic relief would have helped to lighten some of the seriousness and to alleviate some of the blandness. There  aren’t any scenes that feel forced or awkward and so I can excuse the above. The most moving and captivating scene occurs when Souleymane’s mother shows up to an important meeting at school with her son. It’s very rare when you get to meet the parents of students in a high school drama, so when you briefly meet them in the film, it becomes more realistic. 

I understand that François Bégaudeau’s has had a bit experience on television in France as well as experience teaching in a high school and these activities help to enhance his performance and make it convincing. The students who have not had any prior experience in acting, have palpable energy and  give believable performances.

Esmeralda Ouertani has been described by one of her friends as “like the Duracell bunny – she never stops.” is one of the stars of this film which is set in the Francoise Dolto High School in Paris’s 20th arrondissement, one of the city’s most culturally mixed areas. She is also a pupil at the school, as are all the rest of the film’s class.

“The Class” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was nominated for best foreign language film at the 2008 Oscars. It is based on the book “Entre Les Murs” by François Bégaudeau. After graduating university, Bégaudeau spent a year teaching in this French high school and plays himself in the film. Director Cantet wanted to work with real people rather than trained actors, so the pupils worked on the film during their summer vacation, along with some of the real parents and staff of the school. Much of the film was improvised, resulting in an astonishing degree of realism. Teachers everywhere will give a smile of recognition.

In the classroom Francois (Bégaudeau) is teaching French grammar to his class of 14 year olds, being persistently questioned by Esmeralda and sulked at by Khoumba. Wei, the son of Chinese illegal immigrants, is probably the cleverest in the class, but has difficulty expressing himself in French. The arrival of a new pupil, Carl, threatens the delicate balance of personalities.

Francois uses the Diary Of Anne Frank as a starting point to persuade the class to write their self-portraits. This leads to a free-ranging discussion about shame in which racist and sexist sparks emerge, though alongside the abuse the kids are continually reassuring one another. Despite the playground taunts of “Mali man” and “Caribbean shit” there is a constant warmth and acceptance, encouraged by François with his tolerant and positive approach.

A poor choice of words leads to an exchange between François and the unwilling Souleymane, resulting in a disciplinary hearing, the message being that you can’t win them all. We see the limitations of even this very good teacher, and just a hint of self-doubt.

Plot is the least important element here. What makes this so watchable is the realistic interaction of the young students, the glances, the giggles, the slang. It is also a highly topical film, dealing with issues of integration and what it means nowadays to be French.

Begaudeau is creative and willing to take risks in the classroom to encourage learning. At the same time, he expends a great deal of energy trying to maintain order and foster respect. Although Francois tries to spur his students on with Socratic questions, they also piercing questions of their own. Esmeralda Ouertani seems to discern in her teacher’s wit a sharp-edged weapon; Khoumba refuses to read aloud from Anne Frank’s diary and then expresses her disdain for her teacher; Wei s very upset about his fellow classmates’ lack of shame; and Souleymane is a rebellious Malian Muslim who consistently causes trouble in the classroom. Souleymane asks Francois whether he is a homosexual and claims that he is only trying to find out whether the rumor is true or not. He refuses to do his homework but Francois does involve him in a project calling for a personal profile, convincing the young man to share photographs of himself and his family. It is a magic moment in the classroom when Francois praises Souleymane for his talent and creativity.

The tensions caused by France’s multi-racial society are reflected in the classroom. One of the teachers has a meltdown in front of his peers as he curses the savage and odious behavior of the students which he characterizes as animalistic. In the last segment of the film, Francois loses his cool and uses an inappropriate term which offends and angers two female students. This leads to further rebellion in the classroom led by Souleymane.

Special features on the DVD include a “Making-of” featurette and a commentary on select scenes.

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