Most films concerning the educational system suffer from a lack of subtlety, usually featuring troubled students in impoverished schools miraculously attaining their potential or tragically falling short. It is precisely because "The Class," a new film by director Laurent Cantet, avoids this failure, that it is such a pleasure to watch.
The film, also known as "Entre les Murs" or "Between the Walls" in French, is based on a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Francois Begaudeau who stars as a version of himself teaching French at a Parisian high school.
Viewers are never offered more than a glimpse of the characters outside the school's confines. This allows the entire film to pass with a few of the audience's questions never being addressed, particularly a nagging one concerning Francois' sexuality.
Instead, the plot strictly revolves around the French teacher's relationship with a single class, which is illustrated through snapshots of pivotal episodes during the school year. These episodes include the first day of class, student rivalries, in-class readings, the entrance of a new student mid-semester, parent-teacher conferences and staff meetings.
Although the seemingly mundane quality of the events portrayed and the film's slow progression may cause some to deem "The Class" pointless and even a bore, more astute viewers will find a sincere and nuanced criticism of one of society's most central institutions. Some of this criticism is particular to France's school system, such as the practicality of French liberal values applied in the classroom and the problematic integration of immigrants into mainstream French culture.
But many of the issues raised by the film are universal. The film examines race relations, the shortcomings of democratic bureaucracy, the application of laws and the teacher's responsibilities to students.
One of the film's biggest questions is raised towards the end. On the last day of class, Francois surveys his students regarding what they have learned throughout the year. Some reply with predictable answers such as the Pythagorean Theorem and Spanish, while one particularly smart-mouthed student unveils that she had read Plato's "Republic" on her own.
At the end of class after all the students shuffled out, a student the audience has not heard from or seen much of throughout the entire film approaches Francois. The student claims that she hadn't learned anything all year, a sentiment that Francois dismisses as untrue.
The student persists, reiterating that she has not learned a thing. She then ponders her own experience while seemingly questioning the role of schools within society when she simply says, "I don't know what we're doing here."
- printed in the February 16th edition of The Ticker