Friday, August 21, 2009

The Class

François Bégaudeau is immediately believable as a teacher struggling to impart knowledge on inner city youth. That should be obvious as, among making a living as a novelist and a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma and the French version of Playboy, Bégaudeau once worked as a high school teacher in Paris, the experience of which informed his third novel, which he then adapted into this film, directed with docudrama honesty by Laurent Cantet.

The Class might draw a line in the sand for American viewers. Well, beyond the one every foreign film draws to separate those who are willing to, God forbid, read subtitles and those who can't be bothered. I admit, when I heard a description of the film -- an erudite white teacher connecting with lower-class minorities -- I nearly tuned out. As much as I criticized the overuse of the Yo Teach! segments in Funny People, the equation of rapping to Shakespeare is and will likely remain the single finest moment of genre satire this year, and at some point this weekend I plan on seeing the new Tarantino film, which I believe is ostensibly a revenge fantasy against the Nazis.

But Bégaudeau's experiences give him that authenticity that the American films in this cringe-worthy subgenre almost uniformly lack. Its closest analogue would be the stirring, masterful fourth season of The Wire, not Freedom Writers. Though he placed his experiences into a fictional novel and screenplay, Bégaudeau gives us real students, real teachers and enough problems that mirror America's own failing system that The Class stands as one of the most accessible foreign films around.

Bégaudeau plays a version of himself, Monsieur Marin, teaching literature to a group of uninterested middle schoolers who know that the system will send them through to the next level provided they don't get expelled or fail so horribly that the faculty can't ignore the problem. When the teachers rally against a student, though, the kid's doomed. Late in the film, the principal raises the matter of a disciplinary hearing for one of the school's most difficult kids, and Marin, on the disciplinary board, quietly notes that, of the 12 hearings held in the past year, all 12 resulted in expulsion.

In class, Marin plods through poetry structure and The Diary of Anne Frank. But because all of the classes are so far behind due to class disruption and a general lack of any effort, Marin must coordinate his literature teachings with other courses. A history teacher asks him on their break what era he should teach to allow Marin to choose literature from that time. "The Enlightenment will be tough for them," Marin says with the faintest irony. When he tries to lead his class through the imperfect subjunctive, the students mock him and ask why the school bothers to teach these strict language rules when no one follows them anyway.*

In theory, this inter-class coordination is inventive, allowing each teacher to add something to an underlying theme. But Marin and the other teachers face ennui and outright hostility from the students. In a staff meeting, one of the teachers comes undone. "I'm sick of these clowns," he says on the verge of tears, "They're nothing. They know nothing. They look right through you when you teach them. They're so basic, so insincere...always looking for trouble."

But Bégaudeau lets these kids slowly define themselves -- he worked through the script with them in rehearsals and let them come up with some lines, which explains why their dialogue sounds as though 13-year-olds wrote their dialogue instead of adults -- as more than just the parts of a sexually driven mob hell-bent on destroying their own futures. Wei, a Chinese immigrant and the star pupil of the school, at one point voices his frustration with his classmates for so completely derailing the school year. Esmeralda doesn't pay attention and helps spark a sort of rebellion late in the film, but every now and then she betrays a great potential. The standout performance is not Bégaudeau's at all but Rachel Regulier's: Khoumba, like her pal Esmeralda, has a flash of intelligence beneath her uncaring veneer, but she's convinced that Marin "has it in for [her]" for calling on her in class so often.

However, the problem with these emerging characters is that many of the supporting kids in the class never get to contribute anything. Marin spends a great deal of time trying to figure out what changed with Khoumba over the summer to turn her from a decent, cooperative student into this rebel, and the focus shifts too much in her direction. It doesn't even pay off, either; near the end, she becomes essentially one of the secondary kids without us ever finding out what motivated her to rebel. I'm not saying I wanted there to be some facile explanation behind her actions, but why divert all that attention for no reason.

There's also a massive, almost embarrassing stumble in the last half hour or so that gives the film a plot where it didn't have (nor need) one before; in a particularly brutal staff meeting, wherein teachers discuss students' grades and their opinions of these kids in ruthless honesty, the camera cuts to two girls giggling and chatting. Eventually, we learn that they are class reps, assigned to sit on meetings to ensure their peers get a voice. Now, student government is one thing, and this middle school equivalent is fine. But under no circumstances would these teachers speak so openly about their students with...two students sitting in the room in plain view.

It's set up simply to bring out a moment of shocking harshness from Marin, heretofore an approachable mentor. He doesn't entertain delusions of reaching these kids and inspiring them to learn, but he's willing to meet them halfway. He just wants a certain amount of respect and calm to get through his lectures. For him to say something that frankly would at least get him an official warning if not a notice that his services won't be required next term just smacks of pure plot. I will concede that it serves two noble purposes, though: to ensure that we do not see Marin as the stereotypical inspirational teacher, and that the students are somewhat justified in seeing themselves shuffled through the system by teachers who don't give a damn about them because they're not smart enough to move up to the "better" schools -- the French system involves different schools for different academic performance, not by district like America.

Bégaudeau gets things back on track at the end, with a moment of crushing reflection between him and a previously invisible student who voices her fear that she'll fall even further down the academic ladder. It's a quietly devastating exchange that reveals the impotence of the teachers and the students once you venture lower than the more prestigious schools. The French title of the book and film is Entre les Murs, or "Between the Walls": the teachers and students are equally trapped in this prison, one incapable of teaching the other and the other, like prisoners, already written off by society. While the structure of our educational systems are different, The Class speaks to the cynicism many in America feel toward No Child Left Behind and dilapidated, underfunded buildings. It does not present us with an answer to this crisis because it's head isn't in the clouds: even with the fictionalizations (most of which distract), this is a front-line look into the system. You're not thinking about changing it; you're thinking about surviving it.

*Having taken four years of French in high school, I remember all to well the utter hell that was the subjunctif. It is one of the most ridiculous grammar rules I have ever come across, and everyone in the class treated it with disdain. I know that the film was making a point about the unwillingness of children to learn in today's technologically enslaved society, but to see actual French students railing against the subjunctive pleased me to no end.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't mind the intrusion of plot (as you put it) in the latter half of the film so much. For me, it emphasized the incredible strain the teacher was under -- how you cannot lose your head for one second or you'll be crucified.

    On the whole, I thought The Class was riveting cinema, but I did walk away from the film wondering what the point of it all was. I suspect the classroom is designed as a kind of microcosm of society as a whole -- stratified, atomized, unequal, and with the authorities desperately trying (and failing) to maintain order.

    At the end of the film, one of the troublesome students reveals that she picked up and read The Republic by Plato. It's a hopeful moment, suggesting that the student has the curiosity and ability to get somewhere in the world. But there's an ironic undercurrent to this moment of aspiration. The Republic in fact argues for a stratified body politic: a dictatorship of philosopher kings (teachers) ruling over the ignorant and base masses (students). The student may want to get somewhere in the future, but it's really very unlikely that she will.