Director: Laurent Cantet
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Laurent Cantet doesn’t make a lot of films, but when he does, everyone should sit up and take notice. The only one of his four feature films I saw before The Class was Time Out (L’Emploi du temps, 2001). Loosely based on The Adversary (L’Adversaire), the gripping, true-crime book about Jean-Claude Romand, this absolutely brilliant film paints a mournful picture of a confused white-collar worker who lies and runs financial cons rather than admit to his family the shameful truth that he was fired. The Class, the first French film in 21 years to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is an equally enthralling film that deals in many ways with the same themes as Time Out. François Matin (François Bégaudeau, author of the book on which the film is based) is a middle-school French teacher who lies to himself and others about what kind of system he is part of to keep the house of cards that is an inner-city school from crashing down.
The film begins at the start of the school year with the school staff introducing themselves to each other by name, subject taught, and years of service at the school. One of the more experienced teachers goes over a new teacher’s class list, making comments like “Nice … Nice … Not nice … Nice” and so forth. From the very beginning, newcomers to the school—including us—are indoctrinated to label students and accept teachers’ perceptions. The rest of the film will be spent largely in François’ classroom, where his attempts to motivate and discipline his classroom will both succeed promisingly and fail miserably.
On the first day of class, François totals up how many minutes of the one-hour class are wasted—five minutes standing in line to get into the class, five minutes to sit down and pull out class materials, five minutes to settle down—and tells the class if they can’t get down to business quickly, they will be far behind other middle schools in Paris. Esméralda (Esméralda Ouertani) says the schools lie—classes aren’t really an hour long. François admits she’s right, that the classes are 55 minutes long. This is only one of the challenges, both large and petty, François will have to negotiate.
François’ school has a diverse student body, with students from former French colonies, such as Mali, Morocco, and St. Barts, mixing with other immigrant and white French students. World Cup loyalties have students participating in a classroom debate argue heatedly about their respective countries’ teams. A goth student named Arthur (Arthur Fogel) defends his look as others jeer, and François challenges his statement of individuality by saying that millions dress the same way as Arthur does.
François is not so sanguine about being called on his hair-splitting, however. During a staff meeting, the two student representatives giggle and talk without apparently listening to the comments of staff on the grades and recommendations for each student. They weren’t nearly as unattentive as the adults imagined, however; Esméralda has informed Souleymane (Franck Keïta), a chronically unprepared Malian jokester that François called him “limited.” François, angered at having Souleymane learn what he said, tells the girls that they behaved like skanks in the meeting. François tries to parse the difference between “being skanks” and “behaving like skanks” to an outraged class whose b.s. meter is in the red zone. Souleymane rises to leave class, hurt by François’ remark and angered at how unreasonable he is being with the girls. François tells him he can’t just leave class and tries to stop him; in the process, Souleymane’s backpack strikes Esméralda’s friend Khoumba (Rachel Régulier) and opens up a cut above her eye. François feels he has no choice but to hold an administrative hearing that 12 times out of 12 has resulted in the expulsion of a student, even though Souleymane’s friends say his father will send him back to Mali.
Souleymane’s far from the only student on a bubble—Chinese student Wei, a good student who predictably excels in math and science, may be deported along with his undocumented mother. Teachers are prepared to testify at her deportation hearing, but the same courtesy is not extended to Souleymane in his “deportation” hearing—as one teacher puts it, Souleymane’s lack of preparedness in class means, “he’s already left us.”
Teaching is not perceived to be an easy job. Sometimes teachers unlock the doors of interest in relatively indifferent students, but the system is set up not only to teach but to socialize. Multicultural student bodies complicate the development of an orderly society. François isn’t as hidebound as some of his more hardline colleagues, but when push literally comes to shove, François finds that his own cultural indoctrination goes deeper than he thought. He won’t abide insolence, but he fails to see how his own approach often fails to reach students. He is bewildered when Khoumba refuses to read aloud at his request, believing he has the right to make her do as he says, and at the letter she leaves in his locker that reveals her feelings that he is out to get her. Another student sits quietly during the whole film, looking sad and lost. She talks to François near the end of the term and says she hasn’t understood anything all year. He replies that her grades are fine, but she insists in desperation that she has learned nothing at all. What is it that she wants to learn, needs to learn? François and the school system he upholds have no idea.
This film, shot in handheld DV, is like a documentary on the life of this school. We never leave the school grounds. According to Cantet, “All the adolescents in the film were students at Françoise Dolto Junior High in Paris’ 20th arrondissement; all the teachers teach there. With the exception of Souleymane’s mother, whose role is the most fabricated, the parents in the film are those of the students in real life.” Yes, this is how a public school in Paris operates, but it is hard to say that it works all that well. The reasons for that aren’t always clear.
I was part of an interesting discussion on a feminist blog that called for the dismantlement of the school system. This is going to be a bit shocking to people not used to the language of radical feminism, so be forewarned:
Teaching—at least from the “actively benign” echelon on up—is about enlightenment. Schools are about education, i.e. appeasing the state through indoctrination with a male-generated, patriarchal canon. A teacher who so strongly identifies with her profession that she cannot or will not grasp the underlying patriarchal structure of the institution to which she has devoted herself may well be offended when I say “School? It’s gotta go!”; this is completely understandable and, of course, regrettable. Still. School? It’s gotta go.
I don’t call her a bad teacher. I don’t suggest that she isn’t making a difference in kids’ lives. I’m not even saying she isn’t managing to squeeze a little actual enlightenment in through the chinks. I aver only that, because the interests of the megatheocorporatocracy—which .. is the American school system’s governing body—are not served by an enlightened citizenry, there will be no enlightened citizenry.
I actually liked learning and still do. Although I’m not in favor of abolishing the classroom, school gave me some problems. Teacher’s pets, grades, competition, and most of all, learning the way the teachers insisted I learn—all these attributes of schooling created a lot of tension in me, a lot of rebellion, a sense that they were feeding me something (though I think it was a lot more than patriarchy) I didn’t think I was there to learn. I totally related to Souleymane’s delight when François posted his photo-laden self-portrait that used only captions as an example to the rest of the class—not the traditional essays language teachers always seem to love—and then his disappointment at being called “limited.” These moments may have been missed by François, but they certainly didn’t go unnoticed by me or many other people in the audience.
This film title’s literal translation is “between the walls.” According to Cantet, the title was changed for American distribution because “distributors were initially afraid of the image of prison that it could give to the film.” Interestingly, the feminist blog called schools “concentration camps,” and the writer was taken to task over that characterization. I wonder what the distributors’ excuse was? l