“The Class” stars a non-actor named François Bébaudeau as a fictionalized version of himself, a teacher in the rough part of Paris dealing with a rowdy, multi-ethnic class of middle-schoolers. The film was written by Bébaudeau and is based on his book, which loosely recounts his real-life experiences as a teacher with just this sort of class.
That description of the film’s unusual provenance hints at how engrossing the movie generally is, though it does suffer from an excess of runtime. It was directed by Laurent Cantet, and he uses the same quiet, contemplative approach as he did in “Human Resources” and “Time Out,” his other working-stiff dramas. Cantet, whose parents were schoolteachers, seems fascinated by the often all-consuming relationships people have with their jobs. In “The Class,” we never learn anything about the main character’s personal life, nor do we see him away from school property. For all intents and purposes, he IS his job.
It’s a shame he’s not better at it, then. His name is Mr. Marin, and as the school year starts he seems promising. He teaches French, which the kids find as boring as American students tend to find English, what with all the grammar lessons and vocabulary tests. (French students are spared Shakespeare, but they get Voltaire instead.) But Marin is young and friendly and has a good rapport with the kids. He takes control while remaining approachable. When one student mocks another for not knowing a word’s definition, Marin finds a way to chastise the mocker and reassure the mockee without hurting either boy’s feelings.
But if you’re going to talk to kids on their level, you have to subtly remind them that you’re still in charge, too — that you’re NOT on their level, basically. That proves to be Marin’s undoing when he carelessly uses a vulgar slang term (oh, the irony of a language teacher being caught in a word trap!) the way a student would, then tries to excuse it by saying he’s a teacher, and teachers are allowed to say things students aren’t. Logic and justice are against him here: A teacher wouldn’t have used that word at all, let alone make a student the object of it. Monsieur Marin is in the wrong.
Before we get to that drama, however, we have many wonderfully candid scenes set in the classroom (the French title of the film is “Entre Les Murs,” or “Between the Walls”) that are written, performed, and shot with total authenticity. The film could be a documentary for as natural as it feels, and the students — all non-actors, too — charmingly convey the silly, reckless enthusiasm of youth. The kids think they know everything, as kids tend to do, and that their teacher is wrong. As it happens, maybe he is wrong now and then, but how can he ever admit that and still retain any sense of authority?
There is ultimately not much plot. Even the threads that sound like they will become plots, like a student’s mother facing deportation, fade into the background unresolved. This is perhaps a reflection of Marin’s own stream of thought — once he stops thinking about something, so do we — but it makes it hard to continue paying attention during the slow parts in the second hour, before things pick up again.
That being said, I mostly enjoyed being caught up in the world of the classroom, witnessing the mini-dramas that unfold as Marin interacts with his students. There are Arabic, Asian, and African kids, as well as native Parisians, and a variety of mindsets that’s far too diverse for one classroom to address — especially when that classroom is bent on unifying the students by teaching them archaic rules of French grammar. Is that the only way to create commonality? Is creating commonality even desirable? I came away from the film thinking about the perils of public education, and what a delicate balance teachers have to strike if they’re going to educate the kids without alienating themselves from them. It’s a wonder anyone ever learns anything.
B (2 hrs., 8 min.; French with subtitles; )