Francois is a teacher. Whether or not he’s a good teacher depends on your definition of good; he’s rather adept at relating to his students, but it comes at the expense of discipline and order. In Cantet’s Palme d’Or winner “The Class,” based on Francois Begaudeau’s autobiographical novel, (yes, it’s the same Francois,) sometimes it’s a little unclear who’s teaching whom, and exactly what it is that’s being learned. There’s a moment in the film where it becomes clear that quite possibly, that was Cantet’s intention.
French is the origin and language of the film. It is also, not coincidentally, the subject of the class. It serves as a delicious irony that this film about communication and the nuance of understanding and being understood takes place in an environment where the rules and laws of speech are taught – to those who need to know it, by someone who presumably already knows it. However, Francois’ ability to teach these students to communicate effectively is tenuous at best; he is as unsure of how to demand and command respect as his students are.
Francois is somewhere between his mid twenties and early thirties, and he is in his fourth year of teaching French at Dolto High School in Paris. It becomes apparent very early in this docu-drama style film that Dolto is the French equivalent of the “inner city” school depicted in American “school” films; the classrooms are crowded, the teachers are dispirited, and the students are unmotivated, uninspired and frustratingly moody. The students are also as stereotypical as they come in movies of this ilk; the disaffected, too cool for even the back of the classroom black kid, Souleymane, the hyper brilliant, hard working, well-liked Chinese illegal, Wey, the loud mouth instigator, Esmeralda, (who is Muslim,) and her “frenenemy,” the smart, sassy black girl with attitude, Khoumba. The camera never flinches as these remarkable (non-actor) students immerse you in their world. However, this is where the comparisons to American “school” films end; by the end of this film Francois has not “saved” these students, nor have the students developed a greater love of themselves, of learning, or of him. There are no epiphanies, and there are no apologies. The sense is that these students will leave his class once the year is over, and they will be no better or worse off for having taken it.
Francois may or may not love his job; the film’s scenes alternate between interiors and exteriors of the school, so there’s not enough information about the rest of his life to determine his motivation – and ultimately, it’s not really important. He’s undoubtedly dedicated to the job, and it’s never in question that he’s doing the best he can by it. His methodology is as simple as it is fundamentally flawed; be the student’s friend. Talk like them, act like them – be like them, and they will respect you. Francois allows the insolence of the students to run unchecked in the name of peace, and he gives the contentious one-liners as well as, (or better,) than he gets them. While the technique pacifies the students for a little while, and provides the movie with some of its most amusing and insightful dialogue, the tragic truth comes to light when a linguistical misunderstanding occurs that violently reminds Francois of what he should have already known; he isn’t one of them, and that the closeness of the classroom obscures the true distance between teacher and student, intent and impact, and understanding and being understood.
Esmeralda is one of two girls selected to be student representatives at the faculty/student evaluations. As such, they overhear sensitive information regarding students and the faculty’s opinion of their progress. When the girls betray their post and tell troublemaker Souleymane what Francois said about him, Francois tells the girls that they are acting like “skanks.” The class immediately spirals out of control, and Souleymane’s subsequent actions leave a student bloodied. Francois not only has to deal with the institutional ramifications of Souleymane’s actions, (i.e., should he be expelled, should he be given another chance,) he must also navigate the explosive fallout from his choice of words.
“The Class” is a beautifully crafted, exquisitely painful film that speaks to the nature of life’s educational system and the resilience of its progeny; the resilience of teachers who continue to try to impart knowledge in a hostile environment, and the resilience of students who, despite tumultuous home lives and heavy emotional baggage, go to that same hostile environment and attempt to learn. Cantet and the film succeed by neither villanizing nor romanticizing either group. The film acknowledges that even though both groups feel unappreciated and misunderstood, both groups get up and do it again. Every day. That takes class.