The Class rewrites the mercifully ill-represented inspirational teacher genre—Blackboard Jungle, Stand and Deliver, Little Man Tate, Pay It Forward—and its dross of a subgenre, the inspirational-white-teacher-moves-school-to-post-race-era film. Or just ignores the conventions altogether. Because what’s good and what’s bad about The Class is that it feels like the work of a man who’s never seen a film before in his life—only iPod commercials. The non-story of a French public school teacher and his class of ethnic tokens, The Class is simply two-plus hours of observation, but gets it all right: the teacher (François Bégaudeau) who engages his students by mocking them; the sad student self-portrait that proudly proclaims, “I’d like to be a rapper” (and another: “I’d like to make love”); the packet of student writing the teacher makes for the class at the end of the year, with a title page badly formatted on Microsoft Word and a class photo on front. The teacher is less interested in inspiration than in getting through the year, or the period; his instincts are always, and increasingly, questionable. Still, when he obligingly responds to complaining students that their feelings, rather than their lives, are what’s interesting, he’s not just trying to finagle them into doing their writing assignment. He’s making the film’s bet, that real life is interesting.
It’s a bet that silent filmmakers constantly made, that Leo McCarey made, that the French New Wave dictated, and that reality television has long-since commandeered. At best, The Class is great reality TV. Like reality TV, The Class bases its premise and incidents solely on a location (classroom), which is less a nexus of “real life,” whatever that may be, than a battleground and stage on which everyone fights to play a type, not least of which is student. The kids are about 13, the age when their social lives aren’t opposed to the workaday of school, but completely contained within it. There’s something Howard Hawks might have liked about this: people stuck in a room alternating between work and play, or even combining them as the teacher does in disguising the former as the latter. But Laurent Cantet (the so-called director) understands all the ways this closed space can suggest the outside world (the French title is Between the Walls). Not just in casual references to Iraq and France’s immigration woes, but hints, never resolved or explained, of other sorts of disruptions in the students’ homes, of class (the other type) revealed by one’s use of the past subjunctive. Actually, the film operates a bit like one of Mizoguchi’s brothel tales, everyone with a backstory hanging out, the young and barely-innocent seeking shelter from a world of compromise only to have to compromise and defend themselves the more.
For the classroom is also a forum: When a plot finally emerges, it’s all about the quandaries of privileging principle (and principal) or empiricism, duty or personal preference, questions that have been implicit all along, even in kids’ protests that they’re always being picked on or favored. As a clever late twist suggests, the interactions themselves are almost all riffs on Socratic debates—usually, the teacher seems to be asking students to verify their claims so he can give himself time to rebut—and as Cantet said at the film’s NYFF press conference, the school’s a place “where democracy is at stake.” Instead of the usual righteous monologues, this is a film of dialogue and dialogues, in which the bickering teachers’ conferences begin to echo the kids’ troublemaking and skepticism but for the adults’ pretense of understanding and decorum (everyone, in any case, has their reason and handily states it in close-up). It would make a perfect, though not particularly good, double feature with Frederick Wiseman’s doc State Legislature, from earlier this year, or Advise and Consent.
Reflective of 2008 culture in more ways than one, The Class goes for documentary-realism by shooting with an unnecessarily shaky handheld camera zoomed in on a series of talking-head close-ups, but looks more like a glossy Apple commercial, with plastic white backgrounds, completely even lighting, and HD’s well-detailed, flattened spaces (whereas last years NYFF sensation Silent Light owed less to Dreyer than to IKEA). As if Cantet and company could afford an expensive camera, but not a tripod? Formally worthless, The Class is, once again, just mediocre, pass-the-time TV; feel free to head to the toilet in the middle, read the comics, check your weight, grab a beer, and you won’t miss a thing. Re-release the book the movie’s based on, scatter some pictures from the film throughout to illustrate dialogue for the word-wary reader, and it’ll be just about—and about just—the same idea.