The Class: Notable Process, Remarkable Film
French director Laurent Cantet has a history of making films that blur the line and mine the tension between documentary and drama. His 1999 film Ressources Humaines (Human Resources) was shot on location at a French factory with nonactor factory workers playing the leads. His latest film, the Palme d'Or–winning Entre Les Murs (The Class), continues even further in this vein. Its star, François Bégaudeau, who plays a teacher named François, is a former teacher himself (and sometime film critic for Cahiers du Cinema), whose semiautobiographical novel provides the rough inspiration for the film. The ensemble cast is made up of actual students and teachers, and the scenes are largely improvised, with three digital video cameras watching, such that François' interrogations of and interactions with his students not only reflect but in fact replicate the real give and take of a classroom.
The film follows François and his class from the beginning to the end of an entire school year. At first, the pace is gradual and episodic, documenting the day-to-day struggles of the classroom. Eventually, a central conflict emerges in the form of a troubled and disruptive African immigrant student.
But the loose plot exists chiefly to allow Cantet to examine the mechanics of the school as institution and social organism. Cantet shows us scenes we've all seen a thousand times before—the classroom, the faculty meeting, the parent-teacher conference, the visit to the principal's office—but he unearths from them nuanced explorations of how authority figures and their subjects, driven by complex and often conflicting interests, negotiate power and responsibility.
Mercifully, François is not a one-dimensional hero-teacher, nor are his students merely dangerous but ultimately redeemable minds for him to reach out and touch. François enjoys and takes seriously his responsibility to his students (that confluence is apparent in, say, a scene in which he artfully handles a student asking him if he's gay), but he is far from infallible; the students are preoccupied with their outsized internal adolescent lives, but they are not necessarily uneager to learn.
Throughout, Bégaudeau and the cast are consistently genuine—one scene doesn't seem obviously scripted and another documented or improvised, for instance—and the performances as a whole are impressive.
The Class would be a notable work if only for the process behind it, but, to its credit, it also happens to be a remarkable film.