The Class Dir. Laurent Cantet

[Sony Pictures Classics; 2008]

The Cannes Film Festival is one of the most influential film festivals in the world. For the most part, its reputation is well-earned. Besides, any major festival that would give their grand prize to last year’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days deserves whatever respect there is to grant. This year's ultra-prestigious, much-coveted Palme d’Or ("Golden Palm") went to The Class, the first French film to win in over 21 years. And the decision was unanimous.

The Class is a curious production. It is a fictionalized dramatization of a semi-autobiographical book written by François Bégaudeau. Interestingly, not only does Bégaudeau star as the film's teacher, but the students are played by the actual students from the school in which the film was shot. In fact, their parents in the film are their real parents, and their teachers are their real teachers. Even riskier: the students' lines weren't scripted. As director Laurent Cantet put it, "The entire film is constructed around language. I wanted to film those incredible oratory moments that are so frequent in a classroom, where relevance or strength of position doesn't matter much and what counts above all is to have the last word." Indeed, the overall effect can be dizzying.

The story provides a marked glimpse into the life of a teacher, François Marin, and his experiences in an unrelentingly dysfunctional, inner-city middle school classroom in Paris. Authority, the bedrock of education, is utterly denied by the students; they dismiss the teacher's lessons as “bourgeois”; and when asked to read, they refuse to. Though sometimes inspiring, the cultural clashes within the classroom -- a microcosm of contemporary France -- wear on Marin, and his own ethical stance becomes an object of question.

Towards the end of the film, it's revealed that a female student -- one who has been contemptuous of her educational experience and has refused to interact with the teacher in any meaningful fashion -- has in fact been reading Plato all along. In moments like these, the film seems to suggest that the insolent behavior of the students are justified because they can all be trusted to better educate themselves outside of the institutional constraints of a classroom.

Perhaps recognizing the enormity of the local -- or perhaps Western societal -- forces at work, Cantet avoids placing blame, nor does he propose solutions to problems that have befuddled pedagogists for decades. He simply dramatizes the inner workings of a contemporary classroom in order to show the nightmarish situation, resulting in an incisive commentary on public education. The entire force of the film, its brilliance even, is the urgency with which it drives this point home to us. Our schools are broken. Our schools are broken. Our schools are broken. It is a chilling lesson, brought home with the great force of polished filmmaking.

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