Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (and already the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes), Laurent Cantet’s The Class arrives in town this Friday, adding one more title to the list of movies Oscar watchers need to catch. And it’s one that’s well worth catching—if only for the fresh spin it puts on its genre, that of the “teacher who made a difference” drama, a spin that in fact stands the concept on its head.
On the surface The Class looks a lot like a 21st-century French variation of James Clavell’s To Sir, with Love (1967). The similarities are inescapable, since both movies feature a teacher working in a poor, multicultural environment. But there’s more changed here than simply omitting Lulu coming in to sing a title song. The passage of 42 years has rendered To Sir, with Love a bit obsolete—something that has been borne out by such recent emulations as Richard LaGravenese’s Freedom Writers (2007). Not to denigrate Clavell’s film, but it is from a slightly less complicated time, and it does have just a whiff of the self-congratulatory clinging to it. There’s not even a hint of self-satisfaction about The Class—something that, it should be recognized, makes it less easy to like.
Cantet’s film is shot in a documentary style with mostly hand-held cameras (think The Wrestler; don’t think “shaky cam”), and many of the kids playing the students are as near the real thing as possible. Many go by their own names and provided material for the screenplay. The story is based on star François Bégaudeau’s book. A teacher-turned-writer, Bégaudeau here becomes a writer-turned-screenwriter-and-actor. (This very fact separates him from Sidney Poitier’s character in To Sir, who inadvertently finds where he belongs in the world thanks to his teaching stint.) Bégaudeau is no idealist—though one senses that he’d like to be. He’s merely a French teacher doing a job—a job in which he finds the opportunities for idealism more and more limited by reality.
There’s very little story. The film merely follows a year of teaching and all that entails. That may not sound like the most thrilling concept in the world, but in execution it’s surprisingly involving and even more surprisingly relevant. The latter is especially evident in the scene involving the students’ argument that teaching them the intricacies of the French language is useless, since “no one actually talks like that.” It’s not difficult to find parallels to that in the American educational system.
What sets The Class apart isn’t simply its less-than-cozy tone, but the fact that it constantly plays against our expectations. It’s not simply that the “breakthrough” scenes where the teacher finally gets through to a student never quite play out as expected. Though that’s certainly true. There are several instances where Bégaudeau has glimpses of such moments, but they’re transitory at best, illusory at worst. There’s more at work here than that, however. The fact that nearly every expectation that’s set up for us plays out against expectations is true from the very onset, where the students—and the viewer—take Bégaudeau as a gay. Is this true? He says no, but not before dancing around the answer. For many films, this would be a major plot point. Here it’s never resolved.
I won’t attempt to list the various ways in which The Class embraces the unexpected. But pay particular attention not just to the more obvious plot devices, but also to the smaller details. When one of Bégaudeau’s seemingly less academically inclined students claims to have read Plato’s The Republic—and offers sufficient evidence to back up the claim—remember Bégaudeau’s earlier discussion with another teacher about what would or wouldn’t be too difficult for his class. These are the instances that push The Class to the realm of something special. It’s a film made up of exactly this sort of detail. Rated PG-13 for language.