Diversity robs the teacher of his power to insist.

The Class

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            “The Class” is a strong French film that never surrenders to the American craving for resolution and redemption. The problems raised here by immigration play out in one classroom in one school. The dedicated teacher, Francois Begaudeau, and his students bounce around verbally, sometimes fiercely, like steel balls in a pinball machine. 

            These are fifteen year olds thrown together in a public school in a rough neighborhood in contemporary Paris. A dutiful Asian, an angry African, a resentful Arab, and two snippety girls, among others, are learning the basics of French grammar. All wonder what earthly good grammar will be in the alien culture that awaits them after graduation; and all carry the weight of the personal life stories that we glimpse only during parent-teacher conferences. 

            The movie doesn’t take us into their backstory dramas; nor does it show us any life outside the classroom. What it does do is ask us to listen. Mr. Begaudeau is a serious man who tries to teach by provoking. He respects his students and tries to blast them out of lethargy by embedding big questions in small lessons. Can a teacher be this open and still maintain the respect of his students after inviting them to cross conventional boundaries? 

            When the faculty gathers to discuss the students, their determination to give their best in a tough situation is clear and touching. Each teacher gives full attention to the case of every student. Director Laurent Cantet never distracts us from the dominant question: immigration. The school is a good one; the faculty is devoted to its task; but given the overwhelming diversity in that classroom, what can they do? Aim for assimilation? Encourage the diversity? 

            We are captives in this intense class, our attention held by director Cantet and by Francois Begaudeau who is the French writer and teacher who based this script on his own experience and plays the central role. He is a gifted teacher with a reservoir of patience that sees him through class and faculty meetings until it is sorely tested.

            Cantet used three cameras, simultaneously active, to film his story. One focused on the teacher, one on the student of the moment, one on the general action in the classroom. At that confusing point, the editor put the film together.

            If the transitions seem too sharp and often unconnected, they reflect the atmosphere of this class. When Mr. Begaudeau asks the students to write self-portraits so he can get to know them, some are ashamed, some embarrassed. Some refuse. Cultural diversity robs the teacher of his power to insist. The questions raised by immigration are global and unresolved, and for the most part undiscussed. This excellent French movie at least serves us well by giving us a real view of the problems even if there are no solutions yet in sight. And, in the way of the French, no one sprinkles sugar on the problem.


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