Generations of movies have taught us that the only purpose of a movie about teachers is to tell us how inspiring they can be. It takes a pretty brave movie to tell us that sometimes, not only do they not change the world, they’re barely treading water.
In The Class, director Laurent Cantet (Time Out) adapts a memoir by teacher Francois Bégaudeau, casting the author himself as his protagonist, Paris middle-school teacher Francois Marin. Marin’s ostensible job is teaching French, but in his room full of culturally diverse students—kids with parents from Mali and Morocco mingle with those of Haitian and Chinese descent—he’s lucky if they’re all awake at the end of the class, or un-bloodied. And it doesn’t help that in a lot of ways, Marin is kind of an asshole.
Cantet allows the story of one full school year to unfold largely in loose, improvisational extended scenes with his cast of nonprofessionals. At times, those scenes do feel unnecessarily long, mostly when they involve the teachers’ behind-the-scenes frustrations and collegial interactions. But inside the classroom, they’re remarkably potent, observing dynamics that initially appear chaotic, but at times accidentally stumble upon real teaching moments—about stuff like “proper” grammar, or the uniqueness of some students’ cultural perspectives—as the students push back against the assumptions of the institution.
What The Class ultimately exposes is a hard reality of contemporary public education in the industrialized West: It may depend on a cultural homogeneity long since vanished. Marin bounces back and forth between sarcastic jabs at his students and acting as their fiercest defender to the administration, a human pinball in the war between institutional order and expansive accommodation of individual needs. At the end of The Class, it may seem that this teacher has lost more young minds than he has won—and that he’s barely hanging on to his own.
Francois Bégaudeau, Franck Keita, Esmeralda Ouertani