The Class, directed by Laurent Cantet - Tom Jennings

The Class, directed by Laurent Cantet - Tom Jennings

Tom Jennings attributes this film’s success to its subversion of educational orthodoxy veiled in high-liberal and Hollywood homilies.

Class Encounters of the Secondary Kind. Film review – Tom Jennings
A particularly interesting contemporary French film-maker is Laurent Cantet, whose eclectic social-realist sensibility yields pointed deconstructions of power relations in class society. After two poignant tales of corporate soullessness and alienated masculinity (Human Resources, 1999; Time Out, 2001), Heading South’s (2005) Haitian sex-tourism tragedy more ambitiously (and unevenly) savaged affluent Western femininity and racism. His latest apparently more modest feature depicts a suburban Parisian high-school year-group, yet The Class (France, 2008) unanimously won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Festival, becoming a national cultural cause célèbre hailed by leftist, moderate and far-right commentators alike – incorporated into ‘progressive’ curricula as well as diatribes about the impending demise of the Republic. Riots in the banlieux and growing unrest against Sarkozy’s neo-Thatcherism doubtless help explain the attention, but comparable acclaim and unexpectedly massive audiences ensued abroad – perhaps reflecting sundry international nerves jangling about integrative citizenship lynchpins of ‘education, education, education’ as late-capitalist social-democratic, aspirational and multicultural consensuses collapse.

François Bégaudeau stars as Mr. Marin (= ‘mariner’, ambiguously invoking navigator or deckhand; either way, ‘all at sea’ ...), an idealistic and clearly highly-skilled young language and literature instructor struggling to convey the intricacies of French verb tenses to variously recalcitrant and intelligent 14-year-old charges of European, African, Arab and Asian descent. The texture and tenor of their sparring steps forward and back are captured pitch-perfectly – all the more astonishing given that virtually the entire fantastic cast are non-actors exhibiting the fruits of over a year’s improvisations borrowing Bégaudeau’s novelisation of his own junior-high teaching experiences at a school closely similar to the deprived Belleville district’s Françoise Dolto school setting that these teachers, kids and parents actually attended. Loosely-stitched vignettes selected from his three-term report were filmed using multiple handheld cameras, along with staffroom and parent’s evening interludes fleshing out the ecosystem’s procedures and the tenuous battle to maintain motivation and order along with the illusion of coherence in the establishment’s mission. A superbly-rendered, engaging and convincing microcosm of modern France, the film’s guileful construction moreover gestures beyond the heroic paternalist individualism ostensibly portrayed.

A dishonorable tradition of classroom movies sick-makingly sentimentalises teaching professionalism in elitist institutions – in the UK’s Goodbye, Mr Chips (dir. Sam Woods, 1939; musical by Herbert Ross, 1969), The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951; Mike Figgis, 1994), The History Boys (Nicholas Hytner, 2006) or the American Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989). Conversely, encounters with lower-class studenthood are perennially hackneyed Hollywood fare in Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955), To Sir With Love (James Clavell, 1967), Dangerous Minds (John N. Smith, 1995), Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006) and Freedom Writers (Richard LaGravenese, 2007 [1]) – the latter’s ghetto kids also ‘discovering’ oppression via The Diary of Anne Frank; but rather than being recuperated, Khounbia in The Class refuses to read aloud from it. Thus French cinema occasionally displays more courage and depth in tackling conventional themes – from Jean Vigo’s iconic insurrection in Zero de Conduite (1933; inspiring Lindsay Anderson’s If ..., 1968) to Au Revoir les Enfants (Louis Malle, 1987), It All Starts Today (Bertrand Tavernier, 1999) and L’Esquive (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2003 [2]) – while also regularly pandering conservative nostalgia (e.g. Être et Avoir, Nicolas Philibert, 2002; Les Choristes, Christophe Barratier, 2004).

Allowing both resistive and reactionary readings, The Class cleverly camouflages its equivocal stance in the tragic arc of disruptive Souleymane – whose inevitable expulsion everyone agonises about but accepts despite baleful personal consequences. However, Marin loses his cool when the female student representatives protest his treatment, dubbing them pétasses (skanks) – not consciously realising the word’s heavier ghetto signification (tarts, sluts) – and the class goes apeshit. Crucially, this isn’t merely an unfortunate one-off ‘mistake’. It exemplifies the teacher’s scornful superiority that they always already suspected lurked under his approach – though hidden by tenets of Socratic dialogue, dispensing knowledge by supposedly encouraging novitiates to question themselves (but not the wise master’s neutrally philanthropic position). So they gleefully overreact to proof both of his duplicity and that of the educational discourses subordinating them which seamlessly flow into social hierarchies outside. Effortlessly condensing class, race and gender differentiations into his slur, furthermore, his sophisticated command of hegemonic ‘correct’ language leaves him clueless about their equally rich vernacular – not even knowing that he doesn’t know. Nevertheless, when Esmeralda later lets slip she’s read Plato – off her own bat independently of his strictures – this can be erroneously inferred to retrospectively justify his and the system’s strategies (if only they were managed more ‘efficiently’).

As more perceptive critics [3] hesitantly recognise, strenuous even-handed efforts in The Class can’t conceal the privilege accorded to professional perspectives – hardly registering the pupils’ lives outside school or amongst themselves away from teachers. Yet while some justice is done to their problems, potential and agency despite education’s systemic stratification functions, the balance still inexorably tips towards authority and its vicissitudes. In ‘advanced’ Western society generally, such manouevres are usually scrupulously mystified in ideology and bureaucracy, but here – through his sly exploitation of generic inspirational-teacher melodramatics – Cantet both appeals to conformist viewers and exposes their cosy self-justifying cliches. He concludes that “school is a space where wonderful things can happen ... but it is also a segregating machine” [4]. Though in this case often due to happy accident more than transcendental pedagogy, we glimpse that quantum leaps of individual or collective understanding may occur if resources, agendas and facilitation don’t lock into disciplining for outcomes alien to those subjugated (the original title Entre les Murs – ‘Between the Walls’ – referencing this imprisonment). But we rarely see so strong a mainstream hint that present structures and philosophies specifically cripple the generalisation of such aims.

Notes
[1] reviewed in Freedom, 19th May 2007.
[2] refreshingly unusual in decisively shifting focus from teacher to pupils. See also this director’s excellent Couscous, reviewed in Freedom, 30th August 2008.
[3] especially Richard Porton in Cinema Scope magazine, No. 35, 2008 (www.cinema-scope.com).
[4] quoted in Ginette Vincendeau, ‘Rules of the Game’, Sight & Sound, March 2009.
Flm review published in Freedom, Vol. 70, No. 6, March 2009.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:
www.variant.org.uk
www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk