Sony // 2008 // 130 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // August 11th, 2009
"I'm François. I teach French and I'm starting my fourth year here."
The school experience we all know but one that has never been told like this before.
At a tough inner-city middle school in Paris, French language teacher Mr. Marin (François Bégaudeau) struggles to get through to his students. Over the course of the term he debates his pupils on the worth of his lessons, marginally contains the bubbling tension among the racially mixed class and achieves a few teaching victories.
The Class, also titled Entre les murs after the novel by teacher-screenwriter-actor François Bégaudeau accomplishes the near-impossible. It is the story of what happens at a public school complete with the mundane details of teaching course material and attending staff meetings. Focusing on the experience of Mr. Marin we also glimpse the emotional frustration that comes from dealing with uncooperative students and finding the balance between professional responsibility and personal involvement. This verité-style docudrama is one of the most authentic depictions of the classroom ever put to film, plus it's a simply riveting drama.
The teachers' experience is the biggest element in this movie. As the school term begins, we hear the teachers share notes on which students have improved and which ones they expect to be troublemakers. The limits of their responsibility inspire mixed views when they consider a student's future when he's faced with expulsion. Teaching certainly looks like a tough job in this movie. The faculty aren't idealists but rather dedicated and tired professionals.
We spend a lot of time in Mr. Marin's classroom where he valiantly tries to instruct an unruly mob on the finer points of verb tenses. Mr. Marin's code of professional conduct doesn't rule out knocking the teenagers' egos down a peg in order to get through to them. That his students are just as willing to challenge him over the usefulness of his lessons illustrates how the teacher's authority is constantly being questioned in the contemporary high school setting. It isn't unfair to think of the students as Mr. Marin's adversaries. Notable among them are Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani), whose potential is matched by her defiant attitude, and Souleymane (Franck Keïta), an angry boy who has just about exhausted everyone's patience.
The story and characters evolved out of months of workshops between director Laurent Cantet (Time Out) and the cast of non-professional actors. The results are remarkable as it feels like we're seeing the action in a real classroom. One of the strengths of the script and scene direction is that there really are lessons being taught and they're interesting. These scenes play out for a good length and considerable tension is generated from the back and forth dialogue. The non-professional actors play versions of themselves and the performances are both very natural and precise. When Mr. Marin and the students get into a discussion, they're not merely hitting all of their marks, it feels like they're genuinely trying to make their points heard. This dramatized but very realistic depiction of what goes on in class is quite impressive.
The movie was shot using HD video cameras and its transfer to Blu-ray is flawless. The 1080p image via AVC codec is excellent without unnecessarily showing off. Colors are strong and skin tones look quite natural. Even scenes in the concrete courtyard under bright sunlight display a good range of varied brightness without looking washed out. There is a pleasing amount of sharpness to the picture but details don't jump out with razor edges. The curls of hair are discernible enough without every follicle being seen and the textures on clothing are visible though you won't be able to replicate the stitch patterns.
The best audio choice is the original French language track presented on this Blu-ray Disc in Dolby TrueHD 3.0 Discrete Surround. This amounts to your receiver recognizing a 5.1 channel signal but only the left front, center and right front speakers are engaged by the sound mix. The bulk of the audio comes from the center speaker and occasional environmental effects make use of the two surround speakers. This audio presentation works just fine for a movie heavily driven by the dialogue. Voices are strong and clear in a warm, natural sounding mix.
I don't recommend the dubbed English audio track because the real voices of the performers are lost and the resultant re-recorded voices sound artificial when matched with the people on screen. However, the makers of the alternate audio track made subtle changes to the script to better match their voices with the timing of the actors on screen so it isn't a terrible option if you must listen to the movie in English. Similarly, the Spanish audio option clearly sounds like a sterile re-recording and loses even more of the ambient quality of the background that is captured in the original French track.
The first two supplemental items on this disc, shown in standard definition, are also featured on the regular DVD. The making-of featurette running 41 minutes chronicles the film from workshop exercises to its victory at Cannes in 2008 when it was awarded the Palme d'Or by unanimous decision of the jury. The select-scene commentaries replay three scenes with director Cantet and writer-actor Bégaudeau talking over them (footage of the pair sitting at a monitor replaces the movie footage a few times). The three scenes run 38 minutes in total and it's interesting to hear Cantet talk about scene construction and shooting strategy.
There are a few additional supplements exclusive to this Blu-ray release. The actors' workshop sessions are seen briefly in the making-of featurette but you see that footage expanded in this 30-minute compilation of scenes. There is also a 12-minute segment where the students read aloud their self-portrait projects. This one blurs the line between the real students and their character personas as it isn't always clear who is reflected in those projects. These extras, reminding us that the teenaged actors are definitely not their characters despite strong similarities in their personas, certainly complement one's appreciation of the movie and its unique creation. Completing the extras, the movie's trailer is included in high definition.
The movie's source material, a best-selling novel by Bégaudeau, is likely little known outside its home country. The inclusion of a separate interview with the author, or at least a brief mention of the book and how Cantet was inspired to film it, would have been a nice introduction to the movie.
The Class is a movie about high school and teaching that breaks the mold by being so real. It's also an involving drama with completely natural performances from a non-professional cast. A pleasing hi-def presentation and a handful of exclusive supplemental content is enough reason to warrant a Blu-ray upgrade for fans of modern verité-style French cinema.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 3.0 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 3.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 3.0 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Select Scene Commentary