Sep 27, 2008

NY Film Festival: The Class

It is perfectly understandable why The Class won the Palme D'Or this year at Cannes. It is a magnificent directorial feat by Laurent Cantet. Cantet's movies are preoccupied with the politics of French society. And The Class, even though it takes place in a public high school in Paris, is not only about teenagers and their discontents, but about what is always a theme in his films: the breaking point tension that exists between those with power (economic, intellectual, cultural, professional), and those without.
The Class is fascinating because it explores the incredibly frustrating exercise in educating disadvantaged kids, many from cultures very different from French culture. In the US there is an entire genre of sappy movies about the hero teacher and his reluctant but finally inspired students. The Class puts all of these films to shame.
The teachers, the students and the parents all play themselves. However, The Class is not a documentary. It is a taut, fictionalized reenactment of reality, based on a book written by the teacher François Bégaudeau, who plays himself as Mr. Marin. Cantet has achieved a degree of dramatic tension and spontaneity that is miraculous.
The movie avoids simplistic generalizations. The frustration of the educational system goes both ways, and both sides, teachers and students, have reason to be exasperated. As for the teachers, we all know that teenagers are incomprehensible and uncomprehending mutants, in every corner of the world. There are entire stretches of film that are devoted to show the absolute impossibility of communication between students and teachers. The exploration of the breakdown of a common logic and a common language is one of the most fascinating, almost anthropological, aspects of the film.
The Class
makes you feel what it is like to be a solitary individual facing an amorphous group of willfully defiant, antagonistic students. If it was me, I'd strangle and thrown most of them out the window two minutes into the class. Their real life teacher, Mr. Marin, who is heroic and dogged in his efforts, is a very cunning, sly educator. Against the onslaught of apathy he chooses to engage the students in a pretty nimble, relaxed confrontational manner. It seems he will do anything to achieve their engagement, and every time he succeeds it feels like a momentous victory. He is very sharp, funny and entertaining (how I wish he had been my French teacher), but he is up against a f0rmidable enemy, against which, the French language, with its complicated rules and formality, does not help him. It is not only that the students balk at learning the formal French they consider "medieval" because no one talks like that. They intuitively reject (even if they don't know what the word "intuition" means) something inherent in their compulsory acceptance of French, which is that the French the school wants them to master is a vaguely insulting, superior, contemptuous symbol of colonialist oppression to them. They could not articulate this if their life depended on it but they feel it in their gut. And they are not wrong. They can't conjugate it (who can?) and they don't feel that they own it. They own the slang of the streets, filled with contractions and words that come from their own languages, and that is not what l'etat is teaching them. They resent that l'etat considers that their French is not worthy of respect. So they question it, and they resist it. Their mistake is not understanding that Mr. Marin is giving it to them to use it as a rope with which to climb out of the bottom.
The Class
, of course, is all about class.
But it is also about the sonorous clash of French culture against the other cultures that now live in its midst. This encompasses not only the language (which is culture, after all) but the logical processes, the mentality, the ingrained social customs. The most engrossing parts of the film consist in watching how Mr. Marin resorts to impeccable Cartesian logic when he can't make heads or tails of whatever the students are saying to him, or when he tries to get them to articulate their thoughts. He deconstructs their meaning like a regular Derrida, he tries using reason and intellect. If that is not the epitome of French thinking, God knows what is. Sometimes he succeeds with this method, sometimes he crashes into a a wall. Most of the time, it is very funny and gripping to watch.
The cast of real life kids is a treasure trove of every single person that ever sat with you in class in junior high, even if they come from Mali, Morocco, France, China, the Caribbean. There is Wei, the extremely gifted, sweet, polite Chinese young man who is appalled at the lack of respect of kids to one another. There is a magnificent girl, who I can't remember her beautiful African name, a born political agitator. She thinks Marin is picking on her because he asks her to read aloud. You want to shout at the screen, he is not picking on you, he is picking you because you are smart. But this is the wonderful thing about this film. You want to scream at the screen, at the students, at the teachers, at the parents all the time.
There is the charming playboy, Boubacar, who is very smart but just hasn't come around to putting his intelligence to good use; there is the astonishing, fierce Esmeralda, a royal queen of sass, who spends her time brazenly sparring with with Mr. Marin (and you can see he enjoys it). She is a riot. There is lost, distant Henriette, who apparently finds it more entertaining to repeatedly smack the blunt end of a pair of scissors into the palm of her hand than anything that is going on in class. There is Souleyman, who I personally would have strangled since day one. He sits at the back of the class, every day having "forgotten" his books, pens, etc, in a most supreme attitude of lazy, ignorant arrogance that of course, drives teachers crazy. But Marin is endlessly convinced he can draw out a spark of creativity in this guy, and both pay a hard price for painting themselves into their respective corners.
For all their insupportable behavior, the kids ultimately command respect because they demand it. They resent being condescended to, and Marin, who is not a saint, sometimes condescends to them in a way that's beneath him, since there seems to be no fiercer champion of these kids than him. For most of the film he tries to remain fair and evenhanded, patient and empathetic, but the students gang up on him and he starts losing it, reverting to a dissing contest between him and the students that leaves him smarting terribly.
The Class also explores the fabled, byzantine French bureaucracy. This bureaucracy, to judge from the educational system presented in the film, is now liberally festooned with well meaning political correctness, which sometimes creates patently self-defeating situations. For instance, having two student representatives sit on the meeting where the teachers and the principal decide on the merits and the demerits of the students. Who in their right mind would give two teenagers the power to participate in such decisions? The result is that everything is misunderstood. And so it may be in a greater context in France today. This is not to say that Cantet has an ax to grind against PC. He just puts the situation out there for you to rack your brains on how the hell you would solve these problems, how the French are trying to solve these problems. He does not come with an easy, reassuring answer, just with a glimpse of reality and truth. And for this, we love him.
What a delight to be engaged so totally in something so intelligent, human and complex; triumphant and heartbreaking as The Class.

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