"Knight Thoughts" - exclusive web content
Laurent Cantet's illuminating, documentary-like film of life in a French classroom is frustrating, maddening - and hopeful
To Sir With Love 2009:
2-6-09 "Knight Thoughts" web exclusive
By Richard Knight, Jr.
French filmmaker Laurent Cantet has collaborated with schoolteacher, writer and now actor Francois Bégaudeau on The Class, the
first film to win their country’s top film prize, the coveted Palme D’Or from the Cannes Film Festival. It’s not hard to see why. The
movie, a documentary-like re-creation of a year in one of Bégaudeau’s junior high English classes, now being released in the States
(and nominated for this year’s Foreign Film Oscar), is a testament to the optimism of a modern day teacher dedicated to educating
his students against large and more often, petty odds. The days of inherent respect and pin drop silence based on the evidence
here are long gone. In the face of the endless distractions in the classroom and bureaucracy outside of it Cantet’s movie reveals a
profession that at times seems under siege – an endurance test that has little or nothing to do with what we like to believe is an
Teachers working against the odds with unruly malcontents is a time worn theme at the movies – The Blackboard Jungle, Up the Down
Staircase, To Sir, With Love, the more recent Dangerous Minds, Finding Forrester, Music of the Heart, Half Nelson, etc. are all examples –
and the script for The Class, based on Bégaudeau’s novel (utilizing his teaching experiences) certainly has been shaped to include
some of these familiar elements (especially as it goes into its final section and focuses on a troubled student). But the movie’s
documentary-like approach with its jagged cutting, hand held shots and lack of musical score also helps minimize the usual
dramatics inherent in these types of pictures (as does the use of real life students and teachers in the cast who support Bégaudeau
playing Mr. Marin, a fictionalized version, we assume, of himself). Keeping the action tightly confined to the urban school – the bulk
taking place in either the classroom or the teacher’s lounge – also helps keep the picture focused. We only learn about a particular
student’s personal circumstances when it interferes with Mr. Marin’s ability to teach.
Playing fair, the film also omits literally all personal information about Francois (we only learn that he is not a homosexual – this
after being worn down on the subject by his nagging students – and that he’s a smoker). The film literally boils down to the
classroom. We really are back in horrible junior high school, some days engaged, some days bored, some days acting the fool.
This allows Cantet to keep the focus on Mr. Marin’s approach to his students, which more than anything, tries to keep the lid on
situations that threaten to escalate (it also keeps the film from sliding into sentimentality or the too familiar).
From the get go, Francois is firm but fluid in his dealings with his rowdy teens, a crowded classroom of 14 and 15 year-olds. He’s
entering his fourth year of teaching English and with all the distractions, keeps things returning to the job at end. Cleverly, he uses
whatever distraction or topic comes up to lead things back to the subject he’s trying to teach. But in such an environment that’s not
easy as the distractions are endless – the room is never completely quiet or completely at attention and the students challenge him
over the most inane things. His two main troublemakers announce themselves immediately (two female students) and proceed to
argue with him incessantly throughout the year, doing their best to get him to lose his cool. Though Francois deftly deflects their
incessant interruptions as the months go by, eventually they wear him down and his blurting out a reference to the girls as “skanks”
causes a violent disruption in the class that suddenly finds his fair-minded approach suspect. His decision to keep the incident from
school officials and then to try and defend himself directly to the students when his behavior is revealed makes you wince – but its
behavior that is very understandable under the circumstances.
One has the same reaction when at the end of the year a student shyly confesses she has learned not one thing in his class and
earlier, during a moment in the teacher’s lounge when a fellow instructor has a complete meltdown about the sullen, intractable
students. Not one of his compatriots – Mr. Marin included – responds to the instructor’s tirade with so much as a nod of empathy.
There has been a desire on the part of the viewer, based on all those Hollywood films about teachers trying to Do Good (and our own
experiences) to view Mr. Marin as heroic, saintly even for trying to bestow knowledge on these miscreants no matter the personal
cost but these missteps reveal that underneath the teacher lies a regular guy. Even without the usual Hollywood syrup it’s moments
like these that win your heart and will Mr. Marin to get back in there and do battle.