Sony // 2008 // 130 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // July 29th, 2009
"The school and the cinema make a rather odd couple."
France ended its 21-year Palme d'Or drought when Laurent Cantet's film The Class took the Festival de Cannes' top prize in 2008. Based on a novel by François Bégaudeau (who also co-wrote the screenplay), The Class is a depiction of life inside an ethnically diverse Parisian school. Shot intimately in a documentary style, Cantet observes a class of youths as they verbally joust with their teacher, M. Marin (played by Bégaudeau), over the course of one academic year. Nearly the entire movie takes place at the school (the film's French title translates as "Between the Walls"), whether it's Marin's classroom, the teachers' lounge, or the schoolyard.
Cantet's approach is, unsurprisingly, very immersive; for much of the movie, it feels as if the viewer is eavesdropping on a real class. Much of the film is focused on banal interactions between Marin and his students, with no plot to speak of. If this approach does prove to be a slog at times, it also means that the film manages to largely sidestep the pitfalls found in nearly every other movie involving a teacher trying to inspire pupils.
Around the last half-hour or so of the movie, a story coalesces around Souleymane, one of Marin's more troubled pupils. Spoilers Souleymane angrily storms out of Marin's class one day, and in the process accidentally strikes another student. Marin (whose poor choice of words in confronting two students led to Souleymane's enraged departure) lobbies hard on his student's behalf, but Souleymane is ultimately expelled, and it is implied that his father will send him back to their family's village in Mali.
This section of The Class is interesting because it raises questions about the degree of responsibility public institutions such as schools have for troubled students like Souleymane. Are the systems of discipline in place at this school really enough? It was known that Souleymane had problems before this incident; was enough done to address his difficulties in the time leading up to the incident? What about the role of Souleymane's family? (His mother does not appear to speak French, and insists that her son is hard working and well behaved.) Should Marin be blamed for what happened, and if so, to what degree?
With fruitful questions like these, The Class easily manages to engage the viewer. The film also scores points for verisimilitude, especially in the way that it demonstrates how hard it can be for a teacher to get through to students who are highly reluctant to listen. Communication is key in The Class. Marin is a teacher of the French language. Much of the back forth between him and his students involves language or communication in one way or another, whether it's the class questioning the value of learning the imperfect subjunctive or simply Marin attempting to get a word in edgewise over the din of the students.
Despite these positives, I'm not sure The Class is Palme d'Or-worthy. The transition from episodic-documentary to a more plot-based narrative is a little jarring and also happens too late in the movie. And while Cantet's documentary approach easily puts the viewer into the world of the film, it is less successful in fleshing out the characters it is documenting as people. This isn't all that important before the Souleymane subplot takes center stage, but when it does, despite the fly-on-the-wall feel of the film, there is a surprising lack of emotional engagement. As a consequence, Souleymane's outburst and ultimate fate come off more as the filmmakers delivering a lesson than as a sad and tragic event. Similarly, in an earlier part of the film, one of Marin's colleagues angrily storms into the teacher's lounge to unleash an invective against the kids he has to teach. Since the film spends almost no time with this character, the scene feels more like a speech for the audience's benefit than the frustrated outburst of a fully rounded person. So while The Class is a thought-provoking film, it can also come off as rather cold at times.
The acting in The Class isn't so much acting as it is behaving by virtue of the film's style. Fittingly, then, the students in the film are played by nonprofessionals, and Bégaudeau himself isn't an actor by trade. It's an approach that jibes well with the documentary-approach of the film, and the students in particular are remarkably natural in their performances.
Sony's DVD of The Class is fine in a technical sense; I have no complaints with the image on the disc, and the LCR sound presentation is more than adequate for putting out the film's dialogue.
For extras, there is commentary with Cantet and Bégaudeau for two sequences. The clips run more than 20 minutes total. Interestingly, in addition to showing the footage and having the participants' comments appear over it (as is the case in most commentaries) these clips cut to footage of Cantet and Bégaudeau, who appear to be watching the footage on a computer screen. Their commentary is informative and insightful, but the switching back and forth between the footage and the filmmakers is somewhat distracting and could have been edited better, if not left out altogether.
Also included is a 41-minute making-of documentary that traces the entire production, from the improv workshops Cantet conducted with Bégaudeau and the students, to the film's successful bow at Cannes. This is a terrific making-of featurette that eschews EPK-esque talking heads interviews where everyone praises everyone and instead offers a well-rounded look at the production of the film. It's fascinating to watch Cantet work with his young actors in building scenes, whether it's in the workshop or during the actual shoot. All in all, the peek at the creative process that this featurette offers makes it well worth watching.
All things considered, I liked The Class and feel that it's worth seeing, but I guess I was expecting more given the film's Palme d'Or pedigree. Nonetheless, the film mostly works as an authentic-feeling examination of education in today's world.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 3.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 3.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Select-Scene Commentary