The Class (2008)
Adapted by director Laurent Cantet from 2006 novel Entre les murs (English: Between the walls) by François Bégaudeau, The Class (2008) is filmed in such a way to mimic the novel’s autobiographical content about a year in an inner city school in Paris. Based on Bégaudeau’s actual life as a teacher, the viewer is caught up in the film’s attempt to capture the realism of a classroom’s struggles, teacher breakdowns, and the workings of relationships of the teachers, students, parents, and administration in a Paris school district. The workings of these relationships makes the film relatable, and able to be set in any diverse high school in a tough neighborhood.
Following other teacher films, François Bégaudeau stars as François Marin, an understanding and tough French literature teacher who jokes with the students—which also leads to high tensions towards the film’s climax. His teaching style and character, though effective, leads students to question and challenge him throughout the film. The Class does what other teacher films do not and provides a breath of fresh air from the white savior stereotype and the classroom dynamic is notably very natural, perhaps because Bégaudeau plays a version of himself.
The Class opens with scenes defining key elements of the film. François finishing his coffee before walking to the school, where we see staff moving furniture, cleaning, drilling presumably just days before the start of a new year. The teachers meet, and returners introduce themselves, wishing the new hires luck in the year. Cut to the first day of class, the students are rowdy, and take some time to settle down as François quiets them, and notes that in a year thousands of hours are lost from wasted time. A student, Khomba (Rachel Regulier) challenges him, and says that they never get a full hour of class, only 55 minutes.
We see themes that real-life teachers deal with: students not reading, disinterest, and distraction, and this reality causes the reader to forget the film isn’t a documentary when combined with the authentic performances of unheard-of actors. This same documentary-esque feel of the day-to-day of François and the students also drags, and seems unmoving in parts.
We further get to know the students in seeing their interactions with François and each other in class, but remain distanced from all the characters in the film. Besides seeing François walk to work in the opening scene, we get little idea of who he is outside of a teaching role. Souleymane (Cheick Baba Doumbia), an African student almost breaks this in one scene, where he questions François’s sexual orientation. The viewer finds the lack of personality of the characters in the film jarring, and despite the reality of the film, would have liked more of the feelings and lives of the students and teachers that we see in other related films. While equally funny and moving in scenes, the film still leaves the viewer questioning many things about the lives of the teachers and students outside of the school. It is notable we never delve into the personal life or students outside of the classroom or parent teacher conferences, unlike other teacher films.
Going so far as to teach the Diary of Anne Frank, a move seen by those who have watched Freedom Writers (2007) directed by Richard LaGravenese and based on the book by Erin Gruwell chronicling her experiences teaching a classroom of similar socioeconomic diversity in 1994. The book serves as an introduction on a large lesson of self-portrait writing, where Francois hopes to better know the students.
The film highlights on the diversity of the students’ nationalities, not just in their names, but early on in a scene where Francois is helping the students understand challenging words. He writes “Bill is enjoying a succulent hamburger” on the board, met with laughter by the students—one saying they stink, prompting a moment Francois can elaborate. His example is met with more challenge, when friends Khomba and Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani) suggest he use more relevant names than Bill—such as Aïssata or Fatou and he adapt a little, despite his exasperation that should he choose names from all their origins, it’d never end.
It is through teaching units we see the majority of the plot and conflict occur in the film. François’s unit of verb tenses seen in several scenes in the first quarter of the movie, is just one example of his teaching style and joking manner being well-received. In one of these moments he prompts “give me a perfect example”, and is answered by Khomba, to whom he quips “I don’t believe it [is a perfect example]” and the students laugh in response.
This same joking, pushing manner is also seen as the downfall of François. First with Khomba, she feels he doesn’t respect him and writes a letter on this and changes to a back seat, concluding she won’t speak up. During the climax of the film, François implies in class to two of the girls that they were acting like “skanks” at a teacher’s meeting where they served as student representatives. This comes to cause an uproar by Souleymane, who accidentally hits Khomba in the face with a bag when he storms from the classroom after yelling at François. The viewer is also shocked by his use of this word, as this does seem to be crossing lines that teachers shouldn’t cross. François goes to the girls later in the courtyard, and attempts to explain that he uses it differently than the girls use it, but his explanations are not heard. Souleymane faces trial and is expelled, and presumably sent back to Mali.
In the film’s ending scene and last lesson, Henriette sticks behind class after François asks the students what they learned that year. She insists that she did not learn anything, and does not want to go to technical school. We are shown earlier that the education system in France appears tracked, the teachers deciding the fate of the students. The film comes to an end with a football game while the camera pans over the empty classrooms.
The teacher-focused plot of the film is centered around lessons and is genuine to the feeling of a classroom, but the action builds slowly enough that the viewer wonders if any progress is actually being made among the students in comparison to other teacher films that “transform” the students. Ultimately, the viewer feels a bit unsatisfied at the end, where no true change has been made outside the passing of time.
Directed By: Laurent Cantet
Running Time: 2 h 8 m
Palme d’Or at Cannes 2008