Mr. B√©gaudeau’s students are lippy and confrontational, maddeningly immature. They are loath to learn anything and as restless as they are repressed. Told to sit down, shut up and listen five days a week, they murmur through each lesson at a low boil, erupting in flashes of hot indignation when provoked. They are pouty and explosive, confrontational and exasperating; and they behave as such for two hours of demanding and intimate cinema in The Class.
Adapted from a memoir by middle-school teacher Fran√ßois B√©gaudeau–who, in a nice turn of pseudo-cinema verit√©, plays himself in the film–The Class chronicles the daily drag of France’s lower-class education system. Given the bleak malaise of its setting, little happens in the film, leaving The Class less concerned with plot than with character. The 20 or so 13-year-old students–who are mostly immigrants–are so fully realized and well-voiced that the film unwinds more like seamless improv or reality TV than scripted film. This makes sense, since the actors are actual students from B√©gaudeau’s school in Paris’s 20th district, the set of the concrete campus itself.
As we sit in on a long reel of day to day French lessons, staff meetings and recesses, distinct personalities develop from the students initial personas, the baggy-clad, blinged-up, mousy and temperamental slowly evolving beyond their typecast roles. But our view is strictly limited to the four walls of the classroom so we learn more about the students through their declension of the imperfect subjunctive than any questionable extracurricular activities. (Tellingly, the French title of the film, Entre les murs, translates to “Between the Walls”).
At once maddening and intimate, this classroom confinement proves enlightening for the students and the audience alike. One revealing moment occurs toward the end of the term as the students work on their final projects: that tried and true classic of Junior High, the self-portrait. As B√©gaudeau pins one delinquent student’s photographs to the wall–snap shots of his Arabic tattoo, his tiny bedroom, his imposing mother in her burka–the entire class gathers around the pin-board and gets lost in a moment of personal revelation. Rarely are children given such a bold voice in cinema, and to watch each identity blossom is compelling and difficult stuff.
Tethered to these characters, The Class thus is more affecting than cut-and-dried documentary could be. Keeping overt treatment of social and political issues at bay, the film manages to evoke the troubling depth of the students’ lives without abstracted terms like alienation and subjugation. We may be pulled through the door and dragged in front of the chalkboard by Director Laurent Cantet’s tirelessly attentive digital cameras, but unlike the other students, we are not told where to sit. Moving between the vociferous teenagers in this cramped linoleum box, we grasp the hopelessness of their situation without being forced into trite school-yard clich√©s. These students, while still young, already have paths marked for them. They are heading to vocational college if anywhere at all; they will drive cabs and type memos, fold clothes and wait tables. We hope they’ll make it through their adolescence in the smoky light of Paris’s notoriously rough suburbs; we hope they’ll stay out of jail. Yet as we hope, Mr. B√©gaudeau surveys his empty classroom at day’s end and takes out his frustration on a chair.
Perhaps it’s not that he doesn’t try, but that he tries too hard. Young, rakish and as stubborn as his students, B√©gaudeau declines his subjunctive as hiply as humanly possible, and happily talks the talk with the kids he treats almost as equals. Instead of trying to rein them in, B√©gaudeau addresses his students face-to-face and answers their often belligerent and difficult questions about his sexuality (for instance), or his use of “bourgeois” French names like “Bill” in his examples. His willingness to say “Aissata enjoys a succulent ham” is echoed in staff meetings where he argues for case-based disciplinary action–an earnest attempt to prevent Souleymane, the violent boy with the tender self portrait, from getting expelled.
While much of the film consists of refreshing, rapid-fire banter, these moments of consequence bring political issues to the surface. Problems of educational theory, immigration policy, social and class identity and racial tensions echo in the student’s voices from classroom to playground, and continue to do so long after the film’s closing scene. This is no inspirational tale of Teacher in the ‘Hood uniting his culturally maligned but secretly brilliant students with street-talk adaptations of Plato. This is Paris, after all, not Hollywood.
As the year winds down to summer, we realize that if B√©gaudeau succeeds at all, it is not in the classroom–where he ultimately fails to instruct, in the typical sense–but in the making of the film itself. It seems that having the students perform as versions of themselves is itself a striking educational experience (both for them and for us) allowing with hindsight a degree of perspective needed to reflect on a film that’s as uncompromising and bold as the students who made it. Like these students of The Class, we are given little except what we find for ourselves. It is only because the characters and their rap are so richly realized that we leave the cinema missing their clamor and almost tragic potential, perhaps seeking political resolution ourselves.
The Class will be playing at the Avon through March 19.
TERRENCE MANN B’10 waz, wizzen, wuzed.