“I didn’t asked you what you liked in the class, I want to know what did you learned from it.”
‘The Class’, directed by Laurent Cantet in 2008, is a French drama set entirely within a modern middle school in a district of Paris famous for its immigrant communities. Based on a book by teacher turned novelist François Bégaudeau, it follows a teacher called Marin, played by Bégaudeau himself, as he tries to connect with and inspire his class but finds himself torn between forming bonds with them and dealing with the politics of the other teachers. It’s a stripped down, raw film with no incidental music and handheld cameras, as close to a documentary as you can get. The story divides its time between the lessons and the, at times factious, interactions between Marin and his pupils, and staff meetings in which the teachers are shown to be cynical and dismissive of the children. It’s a film in which the tight focus enhances the sense that it is taking about something far broader and more complex. To connect with his students, Marin settles on a project in which they are asked to write autobiographical pieces, to summarise their identities and the way they see themselves. One student, Soulemayne played by Franck Keita, approaches the project through the medium of photography and produces a series of self-portraits, but after an altercation he is sent to a disciplinary board and expelled from the school. The film is about immigration and integration, not only in the roles that schools have in supporting (or perhaps hindering) it, but on the entire issue. The lessons that Marin teaches lead to conversations between the students and teachers that roam across a far wider set of anxieties that effect the communities the students are from, including race, gender and the marginalisation of the young in society.
Would I recommend it? Yes – there is a rich seam of French movies that use schools as a metaphor for society in general, for example ‘Zero for Conduct’ or ‘Au revoir les enfants’, but this one tackles issues that, with the rise of the right across Europe and, with Marine Le Pen in France, are just as important today. Watch with ‘Zero for Conduct’ as an interesting way of bookending depictions of the French education system.