French School as Democracy and Stage
Dennis Lim, The New York Times (September 26, 2008):
"The Class," a French high-school drama that emerged as the popular underdog winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year, belongs to the largely inspirational tradition of the classroom movie. Sometimes the films in this category are odes to youthful rebellion — Jean Vigo's "Zero for Conduct," Lindsay Anderson's "If ..." — but more often (and certainly in the American iterations) they are celebrations of the charismatic, inventive pedagogue, as embodied by Glenn Ford in "Blackboard Jungle," Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Minds" or Ryan Gosling in "Half Nelson."
"The Class" simultaneously revives and undermines this longstanding genre. Its director, Laurent Cantet, said he was mindful of it, not least because of one grating negative example.
"I didn't want to make a version of 'Dead Poets Society,' " Cantet said in a recent telephone interview, "a film where the teacher is brilliant and heroic and knows everything. I wanted to show a school in all its complexity, where the students don't always learn, and the teachers are not always sure of what they're doing."
The solution, although risky, was simple enough: use real students and real teachers.
Cantet, 47, is one of France's foremost practitioners of a realist, socially engaged cinema, leftist but not dogmatic, with an interest in the culture of the modern workplace and a tendency to inflect his fictional scenarios with strong elements of documentary. His first full-length feature, "Human Resources" (1999), a drama about a father-son conflict complicated by a parallel labor-management struggle, was shot in a factory in Normandy. Most of the actors were nonprofessionals, actual workers, bosses and union organizers playing versions of themselves.
"The Class," which will open the New York Film Festival on Friday (and will be released by Sony Pictures Classics on Dec. 12), is loosely based on a book by François Bégaudeau, itself a hybrid of fact and fiction, billed as an "autobiographical novel" and based on the author's experiences as a teacher. Bégaudeau is the star of "The Class," playing a character named François. The students and the other teachers are drawn from a junior high school in the 20th Arrondissement of Paris, a racially mixed neighborhood.
For some years Cantet had been toying with the idea of a film set in a high school. Both his parents were teachers, and as the father of two school-age children, he said, "I was curious about what their lives are like right now."
The concept fell into place when he read Bégaudeau's book, a best seller in France. "It give me a vision of the school from the inside," he said. He was also intrigued by Bégaudeau's description of his unorthodox and even combative teaching methods, the way he turned classroom back-and-forths into what Cantet called "an experiment in what democracy could be."
Something of a maverick, François is by no means infallible. "This teacher establishes a certain proximity with his students," Bégaudeau wrote in an e-mail message, referring to his alter-ego. "He gives them many occasions to express themselves, favors interacting over lecturing, collective thinking over a linear transmission of knowledge."
"He is the teacher that I was, that I wanted to be," he added. "A democratic teacher, with the baggage of approximation and chaos that comes with it. But in a classroom, as in society, democracy comes with a price. To be a democrat means to accept this price."
Cantet worked on the script with Robin Campillo, his regular co-writer, and Bégaudeau. "It was clear we were not doing a real adaptation of the book," Cantet said. "We would take situations and see if they could mean something to the children we found." Once a week for several months before the shoot, Cantet and Bégaudeau held open workshops that allowed the filmmakers to shape the characters to fit the actors.
The most eager students — about half of the 50 who responded to the casting call — ended up in the film. All are untrained actors, but self-consciousness was not a problem. "Many of them are already friends, and they were not embarrassed in front of one another," Cantet said. "They were also not affected by the lights and cameras. I think because of their generation the camera just felt normal for them."
"The Class" was shot on high-definition video, and to create a fly-on-the-wall effect in the classroom scenes Cantet had three cameras rolling at all times — one trained on Bégaudeau, another on the students, and a third continually on the prowl, "looking for the details that make the classroom real," Cantet said.
Bégaudeau functioned as a surrogate for Cantet, "directing the film from the inside," as Cantet put it, eliciting reactions from the students. "It was very convenient for the film," Bégaudeau said, "and it also enabled me to not focus on my acting and get tense."
The unforced verve of the performances across the board is striking, though maybe not surprising. As Cantet noted, the setting encourages theatricality. "School makes everyone an actor," he said. "The teacher is putting on a performance. The way he uses his body and his voice is an improvisation. Maybe that's why François is such a good actor." And for students the socializing aspect of school involves role playing and recognizable archetypes. "You have the tough guy, the good pupil, the bad one," he said. "Even in real life they are working with characters that have been assigned to them."
"The Class" evolves from observational scenes to a more pointed dramatic conflict, centered on the disciplinary action taken against a boy originally from Mali, but there are no obvious heroes or villains, a stance that Cantet and Bégaudeau both associated with the famous line from Jean Renoir's "Rules of the Game," "Everyone has his reasons."
Bégaudeau said: "Before judging your characters you try to understand their motivations, to understand a process rather than give grades on a moral scale. I believe that in 'The Class' everyone acts according to what they believe to be good, and what's tragic is that it still produces drama."
Bégaudeau, an occasional film critic who has written for Cahiers du Cinéma, placed Cantet within the humanist "Renoirian tradition," whose other heirs include, he said, Eric Rohmer, Maurice Pialat (the last French Palme d'Or winner, for 1987's "Under the Sun of Satan") and Abdellatif Kechiche, a contemporary of Cantet's whose films ("Games of Love and Chance" and the coming "Secret of the Grain") have an affinity with "The Class" in their attention to the lived reality of teenagers and of multicultural France.
As suggested by its French title, "Entre les Murs" ("Between the Walls"), "The Class" never ventures outside the school, but the classroom, as in all classroom movies, registers as a microcosm of society. While the riots of 2005 exposed the fissures of the new France, Cantet said he was striving for an optimistic portrait. "It was important to show the diversity in the classroom as something natural for the children and enriching for everyone," he said. But the utopia is tinged with ambiguity. "School is an integrating system, but it's also based on exclusion."
"The Class" opens in France this week and has already reignited arguments there about diversity and elitism in the education system, already a subject of public discussion in light of proposed reforms by the Nicolas Sarkozy government. Cantet said some conservative commentators have bristled at Bégaudeau's pedagogical approach: "He's not their idea of what a teacher should be."
Bégaudeau maintains he never intended to make a political point. "I did adjust the book according to certain aspects of the discourse of the school system, he said. "But above all I wanted to disarm all discourse by presenting facts too complex for any discourse to address fully. It's a way to bet on storytelling rather than ideas."
Cantet, for his part, had no interest in settling a conflict that defies resolution. "There is a very old fight in France, and I think everywhere, between the moderns and the ancients about the culture that we believe should enrich our children." he said. "The debate is much older than the film. The film provides arguments to both sides to continue this debate."