“The Class,” a slice-of-life drama tracking a year in an inner city Parisian junior high school, has been greeted rapturously, winning the top prize at the Cannes film festival. The critical acclaim stems mostly from “The Class” not being Hilary Swank’s 2007 “Freedom Writers” or all those other tiresome Nice White Lady movies in which heroic teachers overcome “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and turn their charges into Nobel Laureates.
In contrast, this French film offers a refreshingly realistic depiction of the frustrations of teaching. It’s not wholly plausible—as in all school movies, there is only a single class in “The Class”—but it’s almost unique in suggesting that student quality matters.
“The Class” is based on an autobiographical novel by schoolteacher François Bégaudeau. In the manner of WWII hero Audie Murphy, who played himself in the film version of his memoir “To Hell and Back,” Bégaudeau portrays a teacher named M. Marin. “The Class” could be called “To Heck and Back” because “inner city” doesn’t mean quite the same thing in Paris as it does in Detroit. The French like their cities, so the riotous public housing projects are out in Paris’s dreary suburbs. The Parisian 14-year-olds in “The Class” aren’t gun-packing gangbangers, as in Hollywood movies. They’re just mouthy adolescents, lazy, not terribly bright, and full of ressentiment at the dominance of elitist French culture.
M. Marin’s French literature class is half-French and half-minority, with the unrulier Muslims, black and white, absorbing most of his attention. The smartest and most respectful student is a Chinese immigrant, while the worst troublemaker is Souleymane from Mali in sub-Saharan Africa. One well-spoken lad who hopes to win admission to the elite Lycée Henri IV goes largely ignored in the turmoil caused by his less intelligent classmates. They constantly monitor whether they are being disrespected, so they can get off task. Griping about being dissed is more fun than being forced to reveal to the other kids that they can’t do the work. Marin banters with them, but he’s too genteel to thrive amidst all the dominance struggles.
Now in his fifth year, Marin is no longer an idealist. When a naive colleague suggests that Marin should assign Voltaire’s Candide, he demurs, “The Enlightenment will be tough for them.” Marin tries to get the class to read The Diary of Anne Frank instead (which, in “Freedom Writers,” turns teacher Erin Gruwell’s slum students into prodigies of literary creativity), but it mostly annoys Marin’s heavily Muslim class.
The triumph of multiculturalist ideology is less complete in France than in most other Western countries. Having successfully assimilated European immigrants by immersion in the French language, the French tend to assume that these latest newcomers must eventually wake up and appreciate the inherent superiority of French culture. In his grammatical examples illustrating the imperfect subjunctive (which is employed solely in upscale written French), Marin uses only European names. (That’s a habit that has been drilled out of American teachers.) The students, however, subscribe to American ideas about multiculturalism. An obnoxious girl of North African descent objects to the teacher’s Eurocentric names as “Honkies, Frenchies, Frogs!”
And why do they need to learn the imperfect subjunctive, anyway? “It’s bourgeois,” the children argue, parroting generations of celebrated French leftist intellectuals, not realizing that you can’t get to be a celebrated French leftist intellectual unless you’ve mastered French grammar.
At a teacher’s meeting attended (bizarrely) by two bored student representatives who giggle in the back row, the faculty plots to suspend Souleymane. Marin urges mercy, arguing that Souleymane's not bad, he’s just reached his limits academically. The two students sit upright, scandalized that a teacher would suggest that any student is below average in intelligence. The next day, the girls start a brouhaha in class over this, which worsens when Marin responds using grammar too sophisticated for them to interpret correctly. In the ensuing melee, Souleymane unintentionally smacks a bystander in the eye.
After he is expelled, the classroom atmosphere improves. Still, by the end of the year, only the smart students have learned much.
“The Class” is filmed in that unattractive quasi-documentary style—claustrophobic close-ups on cheap digital video—that has become de rigueur for prestige films. There’s no music on the soundtrack, and almost no humor, either. The slow “real-time” pacing effectively conveys the boredom felt by many students, but the opportunity cost is that there’s no room for an engaging plot.
Rated PG-13 for language.
February 1, 2010
I never got around to posting my old review from The American Conservative of the 2009 French movie "The Class." So, for completists: