Unanimous winner of the 2008 Palme d’Or, Cantet’s The Class is perhaps one of the more recognised films of contemporary foreign language cinema.
Without any prior knowledge, you would assume The Class is a documentary, perhaps a docu-drama; the whole premise of the film is to mimic an everyday classroom at a difficult, inner city senior school. Shot “between the walls” – the name of the novel it’s based on – of only three or four rooms, the focus is on one particular teacher who struggles to get his class to pay attention.
It is not only the setting that gives The Class its docu-façade, but the actors as well. The teacher, François, is a semi-autobiographical role played by the book’s author, François Bégaudeau. Not only that, but the cast is comprised of real life students, staff, dinner ladies and parents.
The factual base underneath the bricks of fiction is why the film is so true to school life. With complete concentration you genuinely do feel as though you are part of the class. However, after 15 years and counting in the education system, the feeling of being back in a high school classroom is not ideal. The ability to create that effect: brilliant; the actual effect and feeling: not so cool.
One thing to be said though, the portrait of humanity is the film’s most endearing feature. Students get things wrong in the classroom all the time, but it’s good to see the teachers getting it wrong too – did the teacher just inadvertently call that student a ‘slut’?
Highlighting the teacher’s mistakes is reminiscent of German film, Die Welle (The Wave) made in the same year, in which a teacher creates an autocracy in his own classroom that gets out of control. But neither The Class nor The Wave offer us that triumphant moment of French New Wave film Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) where Antoine, a young pupil, runs away from school to the beach. With every stride, Antoine never reaches past the middle of the shot as the camera tracks faster, and then he meets the dead end of sea; but the point is, we actually connect to Antoine, we know what he’s feeling.
Though perhaps if The Class reflected back to Truffaut’s 400 Blows and established that character-audience connection through exploring their lives outside of school, it would miss its own point. Cantet was set on the idea of confining filming to inside a school, saying, “I came up with the idea of doing a film about life in a secondary school where I’d never go beyond the classroom, and use it as a sounding board, a microcosm, where issues of equality and inequality are played out.”
The Class is not a film for the escapist within us, it’s there for the realist.
The Class, dir. Laurent Cantet (2008, UK)
Winner 2008 Palme d’Or