Taking into account its extremely confined setting, The Class is one of the most comprehensive movies I’ve seen. Nearly all of the film—which won the 2008 Palme d’Or at Cannes—is set within a secondary school in a Paris banlieue, and a majority of our time there is devoted to the French class instructed by M. Marin (François Bégaudeau). We learn a great deal about both the teacher and his students despite the fact that we never once bear witness to their “personal” lives; what we know of them is gleaned from scattershot wispy anecdotes. Save for one student’s mother, parents only make cameos, appearing briefly for parent-teacher conferences. The Class—which plays in France under the more fitting title of Entre les murs (between the walls)—is a raw slice-of-life wedged precariously between recess and homework.
As the French-language title implies, this slice is quite restrictive. The shooting style employed by the director, Laurent Cantet—documentary realism—does more than just lend surface authenticity to the narrative (as it does for action films); here, it actually makes thematic sense. These characters—both young and grown-up—are cramped by more than small classrooms. Cantet’s quick cuts and overlapping dialogue may be enough to make one crave Ritalin, but it’s the overbearing ambiguity of this world that one is actually reacting to. This response isn’t altogether pleasant, but it’s startlingly empathic. Like the students, we’re looking all over because action could erupt anywhere; and, because there’s no ordinary structure to hold on to—until a single plot line begins to take precedence by the end—one never has any expectation of what will happen next.
Even the characters, despite our intimacy with them, seem almost unstable—but this is by no means due to a deficiency of internal logic. Between hormones and cooties and the sundry other stresses exerted upon them, we never quite know how the characters will (or “should”) react; the teachers are frazzled, and the students haven’t the luxury of permanent alliances. It doesn’t hurt that the level of acting these kids achieve is superb. Adolescents are perpetually putting up a front, and these non-professional actors channel that better here than they would in a documentary. In a non-fiction film, they’d be more conscious of the way the camera is recording them; they’d be, in essence, playing themselves—specifically, the “selves” they’d tweet about or upload to Facebook. Here, they can channel their insecurities into characters. That the apples they play probably don’t fall far from the trees they are seems beside the point.
If I’ve hardly addressed the plot, it’s not because it’s negligible, but because it’s irrelevant. It’d be insolent to insinuate that “the plot is life,” so I won’t. Rather, I recommend one approaches this movie realizing that it’s not the plot that counts; this is an ensemble character study, so our attention is focused on how these characters interact, whether through desultory joshing or pent-up conflict. Our attention is kept by the authenticity of the filmmakers’ conception, the distinctiveness of the players, the way small character traits lave like pond ripples growing into tsunamis, and the pressures on lives simmering in a melting pot. (The 2006 racial riots in France make this last angle all the more cogent.) Marin and his colleagues are champs for surviving the Métro, boulot, dodo stress of intercity teaching, but Marin is—like his students—excessively human. He’s not an Olympian instructor like, say, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society; when a student is expelled, Marin may or may not be complicit. But, on the same token, the expulsion may or may not be justified. The Class refuses to flatter us with simplistic heroes; it enriches our respect for real heroes by showing us what they’re up against. Our sympathies are never coerced into flowing, but Bégaudeau and Cantet do shatter a dam.