The Class review

:. Director: Laurent Cantet
:. Starring: François Bégaudeau, Nassim Amrabt
:. Running Time: 2:08
:. Year: 2008
:. Country: France


Cinéma-vérité based on biographical oeuvres seems to be all the rage in European cinema right now. Both The Class and Gomorra garnered awards at the Cannes film Festival and are now exhibited at the same festivals, as if these two works could not be disassociated as entities and, to an extent, they are. Both films center on kids — or teenagers — involved in a somewhat hostile environment, whether they are the ruthless streets ruled by the mafia or a classroom where they seem to be fed with knowledge they don't want.

The Class is based on a book and screenplay by François Bégaudeau, a teacher who plays his own role here and is directed by Laurent Cantet, an astute portraitist of French societal social mechanisms (Time Out, Human Resources, Heading South).

To be frank, I didn't know what to expect from The Class, beside the fact it won the prestigious Palme d'Or. Not only am I not a big fan of films set in classrooms, but I know from experience that it usually either turns into some feel-good uplifting story or into total chaos. I am glad to report that neither is the case here, as Mr. Cantet's film managed to suck me into his classroom very quickly.

The director's ability to shoot realistic pieces can certainly be credited for this but more importantly it's Mr. Bégaudeau's smart story that drives this picture out of its setting to reach the audience at an emotional and cerebral level. The script has been sharply built with a double-edge, providing both a vision and critique of each side, teachers and students, while questioning the foundations of the current educational system.

On one side, Mr. Bégaudeau offers a contrasted portrait of his students. Rather than playing the easy racial card, he shows us that part of their confusion comes from the fact that they don't understand the purpose of what they're getting taught, the use of outdated grammatically form being used as an example. On the other hand, the film doesn't use their poor social background as an excuse to justify their behaviors: some students work hard while others prefer to act as rebels, even if they know what the consequences for their acts will be — what Mr. Bégaudeau tells us here is that they all have the same chances and are responsible for their own destiny.

On the other side, the novelist gives us a pretty selfless and dual vision of teachers. He incarnates himself as a decent human being who is more often than not on the side of his students, trying to understand them, encouraging them and giving them chances rather than going for easy punishment. When confronted with hostile behaviors too many times, he also shows us that, even with the best intentions in mind, he's not flawless; some of his reactions result in quite terrible consequences. Through the portrait of his colleagues, he also describes the educational system as powerless when it comes to confronting tough students — punishment and expulsions seem to be the only solutions and inadequate answers that make things even worse most of the time.

Successfully turning The Class into a documentary-like piece, Mr. Cantet transcends its boundaries, using realism to question the entire educational system and to point to necessary reforms. While The Class is certainly a success, the fact it won the much-coveted Golden Palm at the Cannes film festival also allows us to question the state of cinema in 2008. While its award isn't surprising, following another winning realistic work with a similar setting — I'm of course talking about Gus Van Sant's Elephant — it also shows us that current cinema seems to struggle as an — imaginative — art form, only succeeding in the accurate depiction of reality.

  Fred Thom

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