Director: Laurent Cantet
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Dolto High School, inner-city Paris, the present day. The start of a new academic year. Francois, a thirtysomething teacher with three years experience at the school takes his class. Many are new, many are disruptive, including Souleymane, a boy of Malian heritage, who passes on rumours about Francoises sexuality. Francois teaches basics of grammar and is accused by two pupils of African backgrounds of only using “whitey” names. During one day, a colleague blows his fuse and threatens to resign, realising he can’t teach nor help these children.
Khoumba, a previously co-operative student suddenly refuses to read in class and later writes a note to Francois, suggesting that her insolence has been provoked by his disrespect. Asking students to write their own self-portraits, some don’t believe Francois is genuinely interested but this provides the teacher with an opportunity to encourage Souleymane, using the photographs he’s taken of himself and his family for the project. A PTA meeting discusses discipline at the school and there is disagreement about how to use it. The two class reps, Esmerelda and Louise inform of what was discussed at the meeting to their fellow students. Francois calls them “skanks” in return, not realising the word’s significance. This starts an argument, from which Souleymane violently storms out of class. Souleymane is finally expelled from school despite warnings that his family will send him back to Mali. This culminates the end of the academic year.
Considered a surprise winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2008 (although the jury had reported a unanimous verdict), ‘The Class’ is based on a successful novel by Francois Begaudeau, which was a semi-autobiographical account of his teaching experience in an inner-city school in Paris. Returning to the methods that he used in ‘Human Resources’ (2001), his first full-length feature, Cantet largely combines fiction and documentary, relying on much improvisation and utilises a cast of talented non-professionals, headed by Begaudeau himself. The film’s concept is also similar to the acclaimed Nicolas Philibert documentary ‘Etre et Avoir’ (2002), which followed a primary school across the course of an academic year. ‘The Class’ is more than simple documentary-style footage though, providing much insight into the issues facing contemporary France.
Set in a deprived, multiracial and multicultural area of Paris, Dolto High School might exist as a microcosm of modern French society – the tensions that exist here exist across the country. Does Francois, for instance, represent the well-meaning but ultimately snobbish white liberal elite? His diverse set of students, mostly of African origin, articulate their frustration with their teacher during a lesson where he uses the name “Bill” rather than “Assiati” or “Rachid”. Has France’s educational system adapted to a more multicultural age? Khoumba, a student in whom Francois recognises behavioural changes since the previous academic year, suggests that Francois doesn’t respect his pupils and that their disruptive behaviour is somehow encouraged by the teachers’ own attitude.
Also striking is the tensions that exist between fellow students from different backgrounds. This is captured most eloquently during a class discussion about the African Cup of Nations. Boubacarr, a student with a background from the Ivory Coast argues with not only Souleymane, whose background is Malian (Mali hadn’t qualified) but also Rabah, whose background is Moroccan. This relates to the difficult relationship between France and its relationship with its former colonies, expressed in the likes of Boubacarr, Souleymane and Rabah firmly professing their respective African identities and refuting any notions of Frenchness. The World Cup victory on home soil in 1998 was supposed to have been a triumph for French multiculturalism, with many of the team from African backgrounds, all playing under a collective identity, but ‘The Class’ almost rejects that this has occurred within society to any extent. There is also prejudice between the pupils with African heritage and a new student, Carl, who is from one of the Caribbean overseas departments (Martinique or Guadeloupe). Taking the classroom as a national metaphor, Cantet demonstrates that much still needs to be done to integrate minorities French society.
As is natural in a film that exists more or less as a documentary, there is little in the way of subjectivity, of Cantet intervening or influencing the narrative. However what he does or does not reveal is still important. The school is the sole focus. There’s no direct intrusion into the private lives of the teachers or pupils and the only moment of privacy afforded to Francois is the opening scene, as he drinks coffee in a cafe before the first day of the school. A parents’ evening introduces the families of two diametrically opposite pupils; the quietly studious Wey, a Chinese child, whose mother, we later learn, is about to be deported, and the disruptive Souleymane, who has seemingly fooled his mother into believing that all is well at school but he’s revealed to be helpful at home. It’s not important to reveal any more than this; all we need to learn about these pupils is what we learn in the classroom.
The most refreshing aspect of ‘The Class’ is how it completely rejects the conventions and clichés of this genre. Think of Hollywood equivalents, the likes of ‘Dead Poets Society’ or ‘Dangerous Minds’, where a sincere and inspirational teacher motivates his/her students. Francois might genuinely care about his students (despite what they suggest), more so than some of his colleagues who begin the year by warning new colleagues about the most difficult students they’ll encounter or those who spend their time in the staff room criticising pupils, but he’s not promoted as being perfect by any means. In fact, for all Souleymane’s behaviour, it’s the disrespectful malice of Esmerelda and Louise that forces Francois to compromise himself by calling them “skanks” and having to literally descend to their level in a very public playground argument. The classroom might be his environment but this is very much their element.
‘The Class’ also rejects any simple resolutions and there are no lessons to be learned, if you’ll forgive the pun. Francois might have a moment of a connection with Souleymane, but when his behaviour becomes violent and beyond the realms of what’s acceptable, Francois recommends the full force of the disciplinary system. Pupils aren’t saved or changed and whilst this might sound a little despondent, the film isn’t without empathy and encouragement. It’s a realistic depiction of life in an inner-city school and is exceptionally impressive in every respect.