May 1, 2009

Learning Something From the French

Print More

The Class, directed by Lauren Calent and nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, has been called by critics “fierce, funny and moving,” a portrait of “conflict, tragedy and triumph.” All well and good, if you go in for that sort of thing. The Class is indeed a great film, but its particular greatness is obscured by its particular subgenre. Movies about young teachers trying to unite a class of underprivileged, ethnically diverse students are a bit like Slope Day acts — a new batch comes out every once in a while, and the audience reaches for the usual epithets. But what about when we get one we actually like? What then?
Let’s get one thing straight. The Class is many things, but it is certainly not The Class. It is Entre les murs, Between the Walls, the title given both to the original release of the movie and the book on which it is loosely based. The class in The Class is crucially not a freefloating body, but is rather bound at every turn by space. It may not sound like much, but when it comes to shooting empty classrooms, Calent blows everyone else out of the water.
He’s not bad at full classrooms, either. The film takes place mostly within the classroom of François Marin (François Begaudeau, the original writer of Entre les murs), which is characterized as a complex and evolving topography. Where workaday directors in the schoolkids-coming-together-around-a-compelling-teacher trade opt for impersonal panning shots, Calent spends almost the entire film in mid-level close-ups, revealing the comfortable spontaneity of his “actors” (the film was made in a real school using real students and teachers, who attended workshops for an academic year to hone improvised, fictional versions of themselves.)
The closeness of the camera, as well as its shaky, documentary-esque quality, urges the viewer to constantly wonder what lies just outside the frame. The invasions and evictions of the unfilmed form the crucial tensions of The Class. The first, and not unexpected, incursion is Mr. Marin’s foray into the private lives of his students, whom he asks to create and present a verbal self-portrait (why, the viewer finds himself wondering, can’t the teachers in these movies just stick to The Boxcar Children and long division?). Fittingly, this comes after the class has finished reading the diary of Anne Frank, which documents a decidedly different sort of invasion.
The self-portrait project leads the students to share their personal situation as members of marginalized groups trying to reconcile their own heritage with the dominant French identity, etc. This is handled with great tenderness, and is perhaps of great sociological import, but is only a backdrop to the film’s movements toward and away from the camera, that is, the class. Two student reps goof off in a private teachers’ meeting. In a perfect structural retaliation, Mr. Marin ventures into the schoolyard, which had been filmed exclusively in cold high angles, to reprimand his students. This sets off a heated debate the next day, which brings the class together against Mr. Marin, and causes Souleymayne (Franck Keita), a student of African descent, to storm out of the classroom and accidentally injure another student.
The sequence at Souleymayne’s subsequent expulsion hearing, in which he translates for his Arabic-speaking mother, is the film’s most compelling moment; in between his deliberate self-expulsion from the classroom and his ultimate expulsion from the school, Souleymayne’s reduction to a powerless conduit emphasizes the distinctions between the cultures he tries to traverse. He is forced to tell his teachers that his mother, despite his grades and his in-class behavior, thinks him a good boy — “She said I do the dishes at home … she said I help my brothers and sisters with their work.”
Souleymayne is the film’s most sympathetic character, and he is expelled and sent back to Mali. The film’s happy final scene is thus only reluctantly, violently optimistic. This is what makes The Class so great — it is more faithful to artistic reality than to the cries of a few feel-goods. Its teachers are no less flawed than its students, and no less prone to sending it into some sort of triumphant vacuum.

The Class will be playing at Cornell Cinema on Sat., May 2 at 7:15 p.m. in Uris Hall and on Mon., May 4 at 7:15 p.m. and Tuesday, May 5 at 9:30 p.m. in Willard Straight Hall.