Monday, March 9, 2009

The Class (***)

Entre les murs
Directed by Laurent Cantet

Like the last few winners of the coveted Cannes Film Festival Palme D'or award, The Class is a film that is exceedingly difficult to describe plot-wise. It's particularly interested in a French class in an inner-city Parisian public school, and it deals mostly with the teacher's earnest attempts to survive despite the volatility of his students. Certainly sounds like a French version of Dangerous Minds, but it certainly is not. Instead of dwelling on teacher-student relation stereotypes, The Class is much more interested in displaying public school life as it is, and it's not the prettiest picture.

Like any film of this style, it takes quite a bit to sink in. We see Francois (Francois Begaudeau), the French teacher, beginning the new semester with another group of students; some of them he's had before, some of them he hasn't. Immediately, the students are insolent, insulting, and disrespectful. This is not Francois' first go-around, and he does his best to keep patient, not letting these young pishers get the best of him. But most of all, he refuses to sink to their level, because he's aware of their situation.

Like a solid percentage of public school students, the kids within The Class live within a strange paradox. They know that they're underachieving students, so in their frustration they reject the very people who can go on to help them. In the case of Francois' French class, the students outright display their inappropriate nature, and flaunt it in their teacher's face. We are previewed to the other teachers in the school, all boiled in frustration, but the common theme that links them all is hope that these students can do better, but sometimes the idealistic view just isn't worth it anymore.

Not that it is all doom and gloom. Some of the best moments in The Class are the moments when Francois makes a connection with his students. He has one student who shows up without supplies or ambition, Souleyman, and even though things end ugly with him, for at least one moment, Souleyman is endeared when Francois displays his photos for the class to see. There are way more problems in the classroom than Souleyman, and Francois is not always at his best when trying to keep his cool, but he sticks it out, even knowing the next semester will bring the very same issues.

The Class opens lazily and ends with a rather misdirected spontaneity, but in between all of that are some wonderful moments of direct cinema. Director Laurent Cantet uses a hand held camera throughout almost the entire picture, and we are placed directly into this sometimes tense, sometimes humorous atmosphere. Cantet makes us a part of the classroom, the way Jonathan Demme made us part of a family within Rachel Getting Married.

Using mostly non-actors, the performances come off naturally. I attended urban public schools for a majority of my school years, and their is nothing dishonest or unearned within the performances in this film. As long as there such a wide divide between social classes, there will always be schools full of students with no initiative. There's only so much a single teacher or principal can do before they become dis-sensitized toward bad behavior, and just wait for the bell to ring.

With recent winners 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and Elephant there has been a real trend between the films who have one the grand prize at Festival de Cannes. Hand-held cameras, long takes, and atmospheric themes dominate the awards, it seems, at the French festival. That being said, The Class is one of the best choices Cannes has made in a while (I never cared for 4 Months, especially if you're choosing it over No Country For Old Men). It was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars a couple of weeks ago, and lost to Departures, but it certainly is a truly gifted film.

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