Before you realise it in The Class, France’s nomination for this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film, you are sitting through a French grammar class full of 14 year olds, lead by teacher Francois Marin. And you are asking yourself, how is this film going to take us on a journey from the classroom?
The students represent the many colours and origins of modern Paris : Mali, the Caribbean, China, Morocco and many more. When the teacher uses the every-name “Bill” in a sentence on the blackboard, the students take him to task for not using a name they are familiar with such as Assïata, Fatou or Ahmed.
Director Laurent Cantet and writer Francois Begaudeau (who also plays Marin) have written a broad based script around the relationships between the students in this real life high school and their teacher. By role playing and improvising over the course of one academic year they have refined their ideas and allowed the students to confidently play a version of themselves.
The students are from a poor neighbourhood but the usual school yard experiences apply. Some aspire to a good university; most are struggling with the fact that French is not the language spoken at home; while some appear not to try at all and discipline becomes a problem.
They are a little more outspoken than I recall my classes being but perhaps that is the attitude of the modern student or perhaps they have allowed themselves a little more leeway because they are doing it in front of the camera. One student is reprimanded for a poor attitude. One teacher storms into the tea room, fed up with his students who won’t listen.
The teachers reveal themselves to be concerned about the students welfare, wanting to impart life’s lessons but become frustrated at the students apparent lack of interest. It seems that the school ethos is to respect every voice but this leaves them, to a certain extent, powerless when the students begin to assert their rights by not participating in class, answering back and being undeterred by threats of punishment.
Honestly, who allows 14 year old class reps into a teachers meeting where other students are discussed and are then surprised their motivations are misunderstood? It is from this event that the classroom spins out of control, and events transpire that builds the movie’s tension.
I did wonder a little at the teacher’s handling of the situation who seemed unable to apologise for his actions or better act out the subtlety required. I acknowledge however it is easy to criticise from a distance. Having to actually enter the classroom, impart knowledge and maintain control is a mix of such complex skills that it is a wonder that any attempt the vocation at all, and all the good teachers deserve our respect, thanks and admiration.
But as always, the strength of the story comes from strong characters with whom we identify. We come to realise what these students have going for them and that they have their whole lives ahead of them. We join in the celebration at the end of year because of what they have accomplished. 3½ out of 5.