French Schoolroom Drama in a 'Class' by Itself

By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 20, 2009

What differentiates man from beast? The theologian would say the soul. Director Laurent Cantet would say work: We don't gather, we don't forage, most of us don't hunt. Instead we have jobs (some of us still) that feed us and, just as important, define us. In Cantet's films, the job can also be the punch line to a very twisted joke called life.

Employment is never particularly funny, but it's as universal a topic as love or food: In Cantet's "Human Resources," the subject was class struggle and the 35-hour French workweek; in "Time Out," which was based on a real case in France, an unemployed husband and father spends months pretending to go to his old job rather than let his family know he's "failed." Even in "Heading South," which was about white women going to late-'70s Haiti for sex, the subtext was work -- that done by the men whom the women paid for pleasure: One fellow's romp, Cantet told us, is another's labor.

In "The Class," this year's French nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and the winner of the 2008 Palme d'Or at Cannes (an award that has seldom had influence on the American movie marketplace), Cantet turns his camera on a French schoolroom and a particularly nightmarish adolescent student body. A more uncharming group of children is hard to imagine. But the real subject is the teacher, Mr. Marin (played by screenwriter and teacher François Bégaudeau, whose book is the basis for the film). As movie heroes go, Marin comes across a bit like acrobat Philippe Petit, whose walk across the gulch of the World Trade Center towers is the subject of the Oscar-nominated "Man on Wire": You're afraid for him, you admire him, you want to know how he does it. And, most of all, you want to know why.

Cantet doesn't spell out much, but his approach to the suburban classroom -- faux-doc, shot with hand-held cameras and as tightly composed as it can be without actually sticking the lens up his subjects' nostrils -- is all-revealing. Marin, unlike some of his colleagues -- whose attachment to their work is tenuous, hate-filled or strictly subsistence-based -- lives the job. We don't need to be told this. We feel it in the spiritual connective tissue that Cantet creates between teacher and students. We feel it in the way Marin defends what he shouldn't have to defend -- why the mostly immigrant students should learn proper French, for instance -- because what he's doing in the process is teaching himself. Which makes him a better teacher for the never-ending stream of attitudinal teenagers who will, each term, challenge his very existence. Marin makes Sisyphus look like a temp worker.

The effect of Cantet's shooting style is one of intimacy, but also suspense. As the relationship between teacher and class ebbs and flows and explodes and degrades, one never knows what is going to happen or where it might come from; the use of close-ups, which has as much to do with the development of the various young characters as anything they say, implies that you can't be everywhere, your eyes can't see everything. As a result, there's as much tension in "The Class" as in three high-speed chase movies. Try to sell any Cantet film as a 10-words-or-less plotline and you wouldn't go near it with someone else's money. But "The Class" is not just the best film released this year, it's the most gripping. (It's early, sure, but the likelihood is that the film will still be in the awards mix come December).

The students, in toto, are an immigration metaphor; individually, they're victims of a broken system and the offspring of the cult of victimhood. Their behavior is often vile, self-defeating and vulgar, and yet they search endlessly for symptoms of cultural bias, racism and sexism in everything Marin says. In the face of their insults and insolence, his behavior must remain impeccable. And the system backs up the class, rather than the teacher. To them, he represents the enemy, even if he's the best friend they'll ever have.

But it isn't Cantet's intention to simply paint the world black or to rail against the schools. He finds something noble in Marin, and sees his life's work as worthwhile. Is that surprising? That it might be is frightening, and all the more reason to see "The Class."

Class (128 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for vulgarity. In French with English subtitles.

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