The star of The Class, François Bégaudeau isn’t a professional actor. He was a school teacher (and former rock musician) in France who became famous by writing a novel based on his experiences teaching in the cultural minefield that is present-day Paris. When his book was adapted for the big screen, the filmmakers decided to cast him as his fictional alter ego. This proves to be one of many wise choices in a movie that won an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and, though it’s not as great a film as some of the reviewers are saying, it is worth investigating.
Bégaudeau portrays Monsieur Marin, a teacher relatively new to his profession, conveying the finer points of grammar and reading comprehension to a class full of 13- and 14-year-olds. Many of these kids are restive academic underachievers, and just as many of them aren’t white. Given French society’s tortured relationship with its immigrants, it’s no wonder that some of the students are pretty angry. There’s all sorts of tension here among white native-born kids, black native-born kids, Asian kids, black African kids, and non-black African kids (Arabs, mostly). Much of this tension is expressed via trash-talking about soccer – the boys endlessly debate the relative merits of Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Mali, Senegal, and Ivory Coast’s national teams, and one black boy catches a lot of crap because he chooses to root for France. This ongoing conversation serves as a valuable safety valve, yet it can’t defuse all the racial issues swirling in the air.
The film is directed by Laurent Cantet, the talented Frenchman who has made smart and rigorous movies both in his native country (Time Out, Human Resources) and in Haiti (the predominantly English-language Heading South). This movie is quite a bit shaggier than his other works – much of the dialogue is improvised by Bégaudeau and the young actors portraying the students in his class. Thankfully, this is no Hollywood-style concoction about a heroic teacher who inspires his kids. Marin conspicuously fails to communicate with a girl named Henriette (Henriette Kasaruhanda) who has manageable problems, and the movie’s climax is brought about by a troublesome black boy named Souleymane (Franck Keïta) who accidentally injures another kid in the classroom and is eventually deported to Mali. This subplot leaves you with all sorts of unsettling questions about how much blame for what happens should be apportioned to the kid, the teacher, and the French educational system.
The movie’s conscientious bent unfortunately ends up working against it. There aren’t any soaring or triumphant moments to balance out the grinding battle of attrition that Marin wages each day. Yet The Class is always engaging, never rings false, and gives a valuable window onto another society struggling in its own way to assimilate its youngest members from far away. The movie ends with Marin and his students celebrating the end of the school year with a game of soccer, and it feels like a well-earned break for the movie and everyone in it.