An anthropological study of a year in the life of a school and, in particular, one class, Laurent Cantet’s The Class is a great achievement in cinematic realism, recognized with the Palme D’Or at Cannes. The film’s French title, translated as "Between the Walls," reveals Cantet’s intention: to take us inside an institution that in many ways is confining or no longer accessible to us. We’ve all been inside a classroom, and many will find this one familiar, but many of us have forgotten the subtleties of a class and, of course, teachers and students are roles that constantly evolve with time.
Though fiction, Cantet’s film is something close to documentary, based as it is on an autobiographical novel by François Bégaudeau. In a brilliant stroke, Cantet cast co-screenwriter Bégaudeau in the lead, set up production at Françoise Dolto High School, and recruited students and teachers to play versions of themselves (after participating in a series of script-informing improvisatory workshops). Bégaudeau's François Marin is a young teacher struggling day in and day out to educate his students to the best of his ability. At the outset of the school year The Class observes, one teacher warns the rest, "The students can be tough, but they're good kids," and the line resonates as the film's central conflict: the push and pull between adolescent students feeling their oats and the teachers charged with the responsibility of forming them into responsible and well-informed adults.
Each class period is a running debate that blurs lecture and dialogue. While the students are capable of working on point, with Marin in charge, Cantet is more interested in the constant negotiation that is a high-school classroom. Marin wants to draw out the students to share their personal feelings and beliefs, which—once exposed—are open to challenge and, he hopes, refinement. For the students' part, they seize on opportunities to challenge their teacher: what good is this lesson, they want to know, and why are you picking on us? The trade-off of Marin's method (and, indeed, Bégaudeau's) is to give a little ground and allow a little chaos in order to reach the students where they live. As a consequence, the students begin to see themselves as the teacher's equal, dangerous disciplinary ground that can allow insolence to grow. Still, even the prickliest student reasoning is not necessarily unreasonable: asked to share their private selves, the students fairly wonder if Marin will do the same.
One class session on the "imperfect subjunctive" suggests a bit of a pun about the high-school experience. The efforts of the teachers and administrators are certainly "imperfect" and subjective, and they carry a dreadful feeling that despite their often heroic efforts, they're always failing someone. Prodded by the students, the adults are prone to succumbing to anger and frustration or fumbling troubling classroom incidents that are open to interpretation. Cold comfort at best comes from the school's worrying systematic responses and procedures, such as a disciplinary meeting in which an administrative board member was personally involved in the incident and the student in question is translating for his mother. Cantet and Bégaudeau do honor to one of education's most enduring questions: what to do with the problem student? A school can continue the struggle, but often the student is rather coldly made someone else's problem through expulsion.
As insulated as it may seem, the classroom is also breached by uncontrollable forces in the outside world. Some of these influences are relatively benign, if emotionally provocative (competitive sports); some are surprisingly salutary (one student proudly informs Marin she read her sister's copy of Plato's Republic, which prompts a discussion of Socrates); others directly threaten the work of the school (the threat deportation poses to a student's immigrant family). With the sensibility of a documentarian, Cantet democratically lets the sacred and the profane through his filter, as in a teacher's meeting that argues discipline as well as the price of coffee.
Parents, teachers, and students alike have their failings and vanities, more than their grace notes. In a moment of understandable weakness, Marin crosses a line in a class discussion, and his handling of the fallout is dubious ("A teacher can say certain things that students can't say. Try to understand that"). Still, when conflict arises, and it frequently does, the filmmakers refuse to instruct us on who’s right and who’s wrong, making the film its own kind of Socratic lecture. As much as Cantet challenges the system in The Class, he acknowledges the good of which it is capable. The film's final discussion between student and teacher is chilling: "I learned nothing," the student says of her year. "I don't understand what we do." But there has been education of one kind or another, there has been growth, and in the end, there is, if only for a day, a happy truce between children and adults.
The Class on Blu-ray lives up to Sony's usual high standard. The newly minted film appears here in a very clear source element with strong detail, rich color, and a film-like look unblemished by digital artifacts. Surprisingly (though perhaps I shouldn't be surprised), Sony includes an unbearable English dubbed track, but happily the default track is the original French Dolby TrueHD 3.0, subtitled in English. By all means, watch the film with its original audio, the heavy dialogue of which is perfectly well-served by this mix.
A substantial collection of bonus features gives added insight to the unusual process by which the film was crafted. First up are three audio and video scene commentaries with director Laurent Cantet and writer/actor François Bégaudeau: "The Imperfect of the Subjunctive" (15:12, SD), "The Courtyard Dispute" (8:28, SD), and "The Disciplinary Board" (15:55, SD). While a full commentary would have been nice, these chats about key sequences are useful as targeted scene studies.
"Making of The Class" (41:43, SD) traces Cantet, Bégaudeau, and the students from the idea behind the film to the improv workshops to the shoot and all the way to the red carpet and the Palme D’Or at Cannes. The extensive fly-on-the-wall footage is fascinating, and the relatively brief Cannes footage, though dull, is important as a historical record.
"Actors' Workshop" (30:05, SD) is a selection of crisp and fascinating video footage of several scenes being developed through evolving improvisations. We see both teachers and students at work with Cantet and Bégaudeau.
"Actors' Self Portraits" (12:03, SD) is a montage of eighteen of the students reading to the camera essays they wrote about themselves to express their personalities to Bégaudeau and Cantet.
Last up is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:24, HD).
This was among my favorite films of 2008, so it should come as no surprise that I unreservedly recommend its purchase on Blu-ray or DVD.
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