Friday, February 25, 2011

Off the Shelf: Laurent Cantet's The Class (2008)

Most movies about idealistic teachers who inspire their charges are usually sappy (To Sir, With Love and Dead Poet’s Society), brutal (Lean On Me), or sometimes self-consciously instructive (Freedom Writers). In short, they remain painfully predictable. Rarely do they delve into the dynamics of the educational process, but instead fall back on the more inspirational side of learning life’s "important lessons." Put another way: People don’t learn in these pictures; they get ennobled. Entre les Murs (The Class) is that rare exception. It examines the complex dynamic that develops between an inspired teacher and a motley group of students.

Directed by Laurent Cantet (Time OutHeading South), The Class, which won the prestigious 2008 Palme d’Or at Cannes and landed an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film that same year, finds its meaning in the spirit of improvisation. “I try to take a risk in reconstituting the incongruity of life,” Cantet told me when in Toronto promoting the picture. That incongruity is woven into the texture of the story. Loosely adapting a book by French school teacher Francois Begaudeau, Cantet illustrates how this dedicated, idealistic instructor tries to teach a diverse group of students from various social classes and cultures. The results are as diverse as the students themselves. Cantet transforms the material into an entertaining, yet incisive look at how the process of learning can be predicated by certain social and political realities.

In The Class, Begaudeau plays Francois Martin, a composite of himself, while Cantet casts a number of non-actors to play the students. What Cantet provides is a facsimile of documentary realism that still remains dramatically potent. But the book and subsequent script become simply a starting point for his story. Cantet, whose parents were also teachers, met Begaudeau at a radio interview when both men were doing promotional interviews in 2005. When he later read Begaudeau’s book, Cantet immediately admired his zeal.

Working with a group of unprofessional actors playing the students, Cantet grapples with pertinent issues that grow out of classroom discussions – including everything from interpreting The Diary of Anne Frank to arguments about rival football teams. While The Class doesn’t idealize the students, it doesn’t deify Francois either. When he attempts to confront the bad behaviour of two girls who are class representatives, he uses an insulting pejorative that has the opposite impact of what he intends. Another student, Wei, a Chinese teen, is one his best students. But his learning is affected by his self-effacing shyness and the tumult brought on by his mother (an illegal alien) facing deportation. Soulaymane (Franck Keita), from Mali, is a troubled and failing student who faces both expulsion and a father prepared to send him back to Africa.

Throughout the film, Cantet reveals a probing intelligence that doesn’t settle for easy answers, or pose obvious resolutions. (Francois and his students don’t all reach a common end.) The Class is truly in a class of its own

 -- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier continues his lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) at the Revue Cinema in Toronto in March looking at the Femme Fatale. He's also facilitating a film series called Reel Politics at Ryerson University continuing on February 27th with Marco Bellocchio's Good Morning, Night. On Thursday March 3rd, Courrier reads from his book Artificial Paradise at the Spadina Public Library at 7pm.

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