Bright Lights Film Journal

Class Dismissed: Laurent Cantet and François Bégaudeau’s The Class (2008)

“While a teen’s emotional landscape can indeed defy reason, the filmmakers insist that a teenager’s need to attack supersedes any moral dilemma, even if their behavior results in the expulsion of one of their peers.”

Teachers long for genuine films about teaching. The longing is sensual — like skin cracking on the fingertips from holding chalk all day, the strain in the vocal chords or the dull pain in the lower back, like the heart skipping when the principal walks in on the worst period on the worst day of the week or when that bell, hideous and startling, jolts you into action again. Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, starring real-life teacher François Bégaudeau (based on his autobiography), filmed primarily in the classroom, improvised to a perfect frantic pitch, The Class was poised to deliver us from the clichéd, sanctimonious traps that have defined the Hollywood genre. But in truth, the realism that pervades in The Class is not in the portrayal of the struggles, the banter, the interruptions, or the apathy, but the filmmakers’ belief that teenage students are contemptuous beings, sometimes engaged, sometimes indifferent, but in the end seemingly incapable of relationship, empathy, and cultural malleability.

How can we question the realism of a film that so masterfully transports us into real-time? Film critics and teachers fell immediately under its spell — the competing voices increasing in volume, intentional topic shifts, the taut anxiety that accompanies constant redirection — the frenetic energy of the classroom and the teacher’s inability to control it has never before appeared so authentic. But while the film succeeds in classroom realism, it fails in the realism of teacher-student relationships. Three students in the class create most of the conflicts. Esmeralda and Khoumba, masters in distraction and button pushing, do most of the verbal sparring with the teacher, Marin, often inciting the class to follow. Souleymane, one of the African boys, covers the angry, apathetic teen territory. He sulks in the back, occasionally emerging to insult or undermine Marin’s authority. I’ve had many students like Souleymane, Esmeralda, and Khoumba in American inner-city schools. While, in reality, it can take months or an entire year to gain the trust of a difficult student, the film depicts the three students as suffering from emotional amnesia — that despite occasions of civil, sensitive discussion between Marin and his pupils, those moments are fleeting. The next day always returns to a potentially fresh hostility on the part of the students, more akin to the emotional landscape of sociopaths, justifying (for us) the incessant power struggles fueled by Marin.

The permitted escalation of off-topic arguments between Marin and his students becomes the crux of the film’s conflicts, and although allowing kids to constantly escalate without intervention may indeed increase dramatic effect, it is not real; and realism is what The Class is supposed to teach us. Later, this idea of unchecked escalation, while totally inconsistent with the French school’s disciplinary climate, leads directly to the film’s climax and Marin’s downfall. Teachers engage in unnecessary power struggles with students all the time, but the film exploits that behavior in the name of realism to serve its own needs, its combative tone. As a result, we may tend to forgive Marin’s insensitivity in the face of his volatile students.

Marin’s subsequent downfall is worth noting in relation to a very manipulative chain of events. In a staff review of individual students — concerning their academic progress and behavioral issues — Esmeralda and Louise sit in the meeting as student reps. While the teachers give input on student progress, both positive and negative, we see the two girls goofing off during the entire meeting. Why, in an institution where students are expected to conform to such formalities as standing when an adult enters a room, would they be permitted to giggle, eat, side talk, and disrupt during a formal administrative meeting consisting of the entire teaching staff and principal? The answer: to set us up. The absolute climactic thrust of the film and Marin’s undoing rests on this scene. Later, in Marin’s class, Souleymane accuses Marin of “wiping him out” at the review, based on the girls’ summary of the meeting, which they restate publicly in class. We know the exact opposite to be true — that Marin was, in fact, the only teacher in support of Souleymane. As a result of this perceived “betrayal” an argument ensues — Marin stoops to derogatory insult by telling the girls they acted like “skanks,” the students escalate, and Khoumba is injured by Souleymane’s physical outburst. The incident results in the expulsion of Souleymane and the discomforting exposure of Marin’s ethical breaking point. While critics lauded these conflicting emotions and inability to assign blame as taken “straight from life,” I believe they mistook their ambiguity for feelings of hidden betrayal at the hands of the students against their well-intentioned teacher. As director Laurent Cantet stated regarding this juncture of the story, “The idealist is confronted by reality.”

The DVD’s commentaries by Cantet and Bégaudeau further accentuate some of my issues with the film’s view of teens. The tension and urgency in the classroom scenes are the fruits of improvisation and hand-held camera work, sharply executed. But the filmmakers’ discussion of their process with the teen players reveals how their negative perceptions of them are echoed in the script. Much of the actors’ aptitude in improvising is attributed to the limitless pleasure teens experience when provoking adults, in that in take after take the lines were delivered with utter joy and surprising freshness. Bégaudeau refers to the scene in the yard (after the tumultuous “skank” incident) as “the lynching.” In the quad, the students surround him while he argues with the girls over the degree of his insult; the students shout him down and he leaves frustrated. Speaking from his experience as a teacher, Bégaudeau describes this scene as typical when an adult enters “their territory” — an illustration of teen “paranoia” and that this event and the preceding chain reaction result from the students’ overriding need to “annoy” the teacher. While a teen’s emotional landscape can indeed defy reason, the filmmakers insist that a teenager’s need to attack supersedes any moral dilemma, even if their behavior results in the expulsion of one of their peers.

If the French middle school is the microcosm of the Parisian suburb’s racial tensions — Marin and the institution representing French culture and the kids representing everything not — the conclusions say more about French frustrations in achieving a unified culture than the ability of its young to be civil contributors to a changing France. The teaching staff have no cultural insights regarding their multiethnic students, but the film doesn’t present this as an institutional problem; however, much can be taken from The Class’s treatment of the Chinese character, Wei, his parents, and the staff’s feelings toward them. Wei is, in short, the gentle, passive Asian, the dream student. His parents smile, bestow gratitude, and never raise their voice or express dissatisfaction. Quite the contrast to the guarded, incensed, and estranged African family members of Souleymane. As presented to us, these are cultural differences with little weight given to minor differences in class or life circumstance between the two students other than that they are both immigrants and Souleymane is fatherless. Wei’s mother is threatened by deportation, as is Souleymane — Wei’s mother, at the hands of the system (passive) and Souleymane, by his family for failing in school (reactionary). When the teaching staff hear of the possible deportation of Wei’s mother, the group laments, even takes up a collection for the family. Suddenly, one teacher seizes the moment to tell the staff of her pregnancy and expresses that she has “only two wishes” — that Wei’s mother stay in France, and that her unborn child be as intelligent as Wei. The scene is quiet and reverent. Why, given the film’s biting realism, are we suddenly bathed in sentimentality? To parade the French preference for docile Asian-ness? Adding to this racial faux pas is the absurd notion that any pregnant woman would not place the well-being of her child as her first wish. No such emotions are expressed for Souleymane, whom they know will be sent back to Mali after expulsion. If the scene’s purpose is to highlight how staff members sometimes rally around a favorite student, the overtly syrupy tone prevents us from questioning the racial favoritism.

As an introduction to an autobiographical assignment (Marin’s attempt to tap their individuality), the students read from Anne Frank’s diary aloud in class. The theme of the passage is the dual Anne — the physical and the “better” Anne within her soul, disclosed and unknown, never revealed in company, only in loneliness. The passage is an apt example of the teen psyche, if not all too convenient given the film’s resolute view of teenagers — i.e., there may be good in there somewhere, but adults will never see it because it’s the teenager’s nature to keep it from us. I don’t agree. And the film ultimately lacks humanity, a lesson plan for adults, providing a less hostile and presumptuous attitude of students. Perhaps Bégaudeau is too close to the work — serving as writer, actor, and consultant exposed some ugly habits and perceptions that could have been questioned before giving us the truthof his classroom experience. As it is, teachers are left with two equally dissatisfying approaches in the genre of teacher movies — cheesy cliché and contemptuous reality.