Who's at the Head of “The Class”?

The classroom—it’s a place we all know intimately from our own school days, but how little most of us see of it once we graduate. The new French docudrama The Class, based on real-life teacher François Bégaudeau’s novel, takes us inside a multiracial classroom in Paris throughout one academic year. Bégaudeau, who wrote the screenplay, also stars, along with Parisian teens. And despite the title, the film’s focus is really all about the teacher, not the fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds in his care.

One of the veteran teachers runs down François’ class roster, noting after each student's name, “Good. Not good. Very good. Oh, not good at all…” And the teacher is similarly mercurial.

This isn’t the first time François has been at the head of his inner-city class, but he still hasn’t figured out how to control the students. They’re not only high-spirited and rowdy, they’re downright insolent to him and vicious with one another. They have his number, and they all know it.

François starts out well, encouraging responses, praising good work, and answering questions about the coursework and everything else with the patience of a saint. But inevitably the troublemakers surface and quickly sidetrack him from the joys of poetry or the imperfect subjunctive. Soon, they’re questioning his sexual preference, dissing one another’s racial and ethnic backgrounds, sullenly ignoring their homework, and even directly refusing to participate in class.

Is all this realistic? I haven’t been in a high-school classroom for more than thirty years, so I asked the lone teenager in the group with whom I viewed the film. He declared the classroom atmosphere “just like my old school,” one he assured me that he’d been happy to leave.

François tries many tricks to impose discipline and gain students’ trust, and he genuinely cares about his students and wants them to learn. He deals respectfully and tirelessly with parents from a variety of nations and kids with a wide range of motivation and intelligence. But he’s also only human, and when he finally blows his top, the repercussions aren’t pretty.

Unlike most previous classroom films—from To Sir, with Love and Up the Down Staircase to Stand and Deliver and Fast Times at Ridgemont High—the dialogue here feels genuine, and the students individuals, not just stock types. Director Laurent Cantet deserves high marks for balancing the kids’ and teacher’s points of view, and for capturing the nuances that reveal students’ inner selves behind their classroom façade.

The Class’s artistry brought it a slew of awards both here and in Europe. It was nominated for the best foreign film Oscar, and became the first French film since 1987 to take home the Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival.

Experienced classroom teachers with whom I saw the film saw François as a well-meaning but failed instructor. One even said he should have been removed from the classroom for inappropriate behavior. Those who hadn’t taught themselves largely viewed François as struggling bravely and for the most part successfully in an almost impossibly tough situation. But although viewers were sharply divided over whether the teacher deserved a passing or failing grade, as filmmaking, The Class rates a solid “A.”—P.B.

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