France had its own little Obama moment last spring at the Cannes Film Festival, when Laurent Cantet's unromanticized schoolroom drama The Class became the first domestic feature in 21 years to win the Palme d'Or, and the white director was surrounded at the dais by the multiracial cast of kids he recruited from an inner-city public school to act in the movie. Their work electrifies The Class, which abandons the cliches of the inspirational-teacher drama and wades hip deep into the dysfunction of a French school system overtaken by social breakdown. Selected to represent France in the Oscars and nominated for best foreign film, the movie connects with modern life better than any of the American nominees for best picture (Milk, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Cantet tells his story through long, semi-improvised scenes, and even at two hours The Class is completely engrossing; it reveals the power politics at work in the classroom and behind the scenes, and its detailed institutional landscape lets Cantet show how all of France is roiled by racial and cultural change.
The Cannes award is yet another triumph for Cantet, whose first feature, Human Resources (1999), won the Cesar for best debut film, and whose second, Time Out (2001), won the FIPRESCI international critics' prize. Both films share with The Class a strong sense of how individuals struggle with and are often crushed by institutions. The protagonist of Time Out is a middle-aged financial consultant who's been fired from his job but refuses to tell his family or accept it himself, driving around for days at a time; he even dresses for work at one point, drives to an office complex and sneaks in with a cluster of other workers to wander around the building. Human Resources lays the groundwork for The Class in examining power relationships in the workplace; here the central character is a college student, the son of a small-town factory worker, who hires on as a summer trainee in the human resources department of his father's factory. The class line between management and labor is strictly enforced-not least by the hero's father, who dissuades his son from eating lunch with him and their friends on the assembly line.
The Class originated as a screenplay Cantet was writing about a rebellious immigrant boy who's failed by the school system, but it didn't take off until the director, appearing on a TV talk show, met writer Francois Begaudeau, whose novel, Entre les Murs ("Between the Walls"), was based on his experience teaching at a multiracial inner-city school. (An English translation with the film's title is due out in April.) A new screenplay merged their work, covering a single school year from beginning to end, and Cantet cast Begaudeau as the teacher, Mr. Marin. Cantet has always favored combinations of professional actors and amateurs, and rehearsing The Class became a teaching enterprise itself as he held weekly acting classes for about two dozen students at a Parisian junior high. The sessions lasted from October 2006 through May 2007, and the classroom scenes were shot over the summer. Cantet knows how to capture the rough human texture of a workplace, and it pays off in a documentary-style authority.
If you've ever fought with a bunch of rowdy kids for control of a classroom, you know the tension that runs through the teaching sequences of The Class. The kids are brutal-loud and rude, challenging Marin, doing their best to throw the lesson off-course. Especially dangerous is the crafty Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani), who sits in the dead center of the room, bolstered by her sulking pal Khoumba (Rachel Regulier). Marin accompanies his lessons in French grammar and writing with a fair amount of Socratic questioning, and the class discussions regularly expose the fault line between white and nonwhite culture. "You always use whitey names," observes Esmeralda as Marin writes sample sentences on the blackboard. When Marin tries to teach them subjunctive mood ("if I were you"), they demand to know why they should learn it when no one they know uses it, and Souleymane, a large and troublesome Malian teen, sidetracks the lesson by asking Marin to comment on schoolyard rumors that he's gay. A four-year veteran at the school, Marin is a devoted teacher who tries hard to bridge the divide with his students, but it's an uphill battle when they refer to detention as "Guantanamo."
Cantet also creates a vivid sense of the teachers' workplace away from class, the long hours and crushing workload. "I'd like to wish the new arrivals plenty of courage," one veteran jokes at a meeting for new teachers. In a later scene another pores over a first-timer's class list, labeling each kid: "Nice. ... Not nice ... Not nice at all." When a new teacher asks Marin to comment on some possible book assignments, the French teacher dismisses each of them as too difficult for the students. Later in the year, Marin and the other teachers listen in silent embarrassment as a teacher cracks from the pressure: "They can stay in their shit. I'm not going to help them. Enough. No more, we're not animals." Shortly after this outburst, at a dispirited staff meeting, the discussion gradually devolves to the pricing on the coffee machine in the teacher's lounge.
Like the labor-management battle in Human Resources, the unending clash between teachers and students in The Class often turns on the delicacy and necessity of mutual respect. Marin has been teaching long enough to understand that his survival in the classroom depends on maintaining, even enforcing, the students' respect, but he doesn't hold himself to the same standard, and his sarcastic digs at individual students are too much for Khoumba. "Your kidding around goes too far," she tells him one day. "I think you push it." When Marin tries to interest his students in The Diary of Anne Frank, Khoumba refuses to read it, and their angry standoff ruins the session. After class Marin manages to grind an apology out of her, but then she rescinds it and runs away with her laughing girlfriends; enraged, Marin kicks a chair to the floor. A few days later he finds in his mailbox a long and dignified letter from Khoumba, who lectures him on respect and declares that from now on she'll sit at the back and be silent.
One doesn't expect a movie this rich in social detail to generate much suspense, but The Class sure pulled me in as the line between teacher and student began to blur near the end. Without giving too much away, I'll say that a classroom incident involving Souleymane provokes Marin to the point where he compromises himself professionally in front of his students, and once they have an opening to punish him, they take it. A disciplinary action against Souleymane drags into school his angry mother, and her inability to speak French makes the fault line between the white teachers and their minority students even harder to ignore. The unpleasant situation is only exacerbated by the teacher's blunder in the classroom, and Marin emerges from it humbled, hardly the heroic figure we've come to expect from the genre. At the end of the movie, when school has let out for the summer, Cantet lingers in silence over a deserted classroom, its disordered rows and overturned chairs like the wreckage of a crash that left no survivors.