The Class was the winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and is now an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film. And yet, in learning about it at first I wondered how it would differ from the usual inspirational teacher film. It may be French but could it offer anything we haven't seen before from this type of movie? Well, never judge a teacher movie by its cover because this gritty, hyper-realistic story about a year in the life of a young teacher packs an emotional punch that completely took me by surprise.
There's a lot of chatter surrounding this year's Oscar nominees in terms of their star power, technical achievements and general glossiness. Indeed, many of the films touted as the year's best have a museum-like quality to them, as though the audience has been invited to look upon a beautifully rendered world through a cinematic plexiglass. It's lovely, to be sure, but has left me cold at times. That's why The Class stands out as something altogether different. To see what I think sets this movie apart from the pack,
Above all else, The Class is concerned with getting its audience invested in the muck of day-to-day human emotion. The film stars Francois Begaudeau (whose book about his experiences as a teacher is the basis for this movie) and is set in an urban, multi-ethnic neighborhood of Paris. Director Laurent Cantet cast mostly nonprofessional actors in the roles of the students and filmed for over a year via a workshopping process. The result of this intense, improvisational focus on the craft is a fictional film that reads like a documentary.
I've never felt so viscerally the frustrations that come along with being a teacher — working day in and day out with other peoples' children from a variety of backgrounds is a more daunting task than I think most people acknowledge. As the movie progresses through the year, Francois is not only faced with keeping his young students focused on their education in the classroom, but he must also attempt to draw boundaries and demand their respect. For some of this he turns to his colleagues, and I found it fascinating to watch Francois and the other teachers debate things like the effectiveness of disciplinary actions.
And while the film is completely grounded in the real world, it has a surprising transcendent quality to it. What makes this movie soar beyond the overly-sentimental conventions of its genre is how effectively it conveys the frustration of some days when it's hard to even give a damn. There's a powerful scene in which a teacher has a total meltdown in the lounge cursing the children in front of all his colleagues. The other teachers observe him with knowing eyes and they don't judge him. Despite not being a teacher, I felt like I got it too: Sometimes this unforgiving world we live in makes it really hard to care too much. So it's that much more awe-inspiring when we find a teacher who does.
Photo courtesy of Sony Picture Classics