Compare and contrast Laurent Cantet's terrific The Class—an Oscar nominee this year for Best Foreign Language Film—with any of the following schoolroom chestnuts: Mr. Holland's Opus, Dangerous Minds or To Sir, with Love. Note the structural similarities: misbehaving students, an educator who wants them to succeed, and big thoughts about the classroom as urban microcosm. Discuss the difference between the Hollywood narrative of triumphal individualism and Cantet's delicate examination of what counts as success—and failure—in teaching in a representative corner of the global village. Be brief, if you can: French cinema is famously dialogue-heavy, and The Class qualifies hands-down as the chattiest movie of the year.
François, a junior high school teacher in a moderately high-risk area of Paris, uses language as a kind of dance, a linguistic style that suits the scattered attention spans and compulsive back talk of the multiculti grab bag that is his class. The charismatic French teacher feints and dodges, gives a little and takes a little, nips at his truculent charges' heels, applies pressure and takes it off, listens to and overrides their protestations of indifference and naysaying. When they ask if he's gay, he nimbly flips the question back to their own prejudices. He follows the syllabus, and digresses as necessary. He gives way as needed, but he knows better than to pander, kiss ass, or try to establish street cred, something students despise in a teacher even more than in a parent.
In turn, they give it back to him and then some, taunting, confronting, evading, playing dumb, and, more often than you'd think, showing an impressive grasp of the imperfect indicative. For anyone who loves language, this cut-and-thrust is a heady delight, so rich and free-flowing in its rhythms that it's hard to decide whether what we're seeing is a vérité-style documentary or a realist drama. It's neither. As in Human Resources and the devastating Time Out, Cantet seems most at ease in the workplace. He builds thickly detailed experiential worlds through which he slowly leaks the pressing problems of our age—unemployment, downsizing, and now, in The Class, the changing meaning of education in a multiracial, heavily immigrant environment, where the very idea of a unifying culture has all but broken down.
If that sounds dry, it's anything but. François is played with febrile vitality by François Bégaudeau, a teacher—as well as a football columnist, essayist, and fiction writer—who adapted The Class, with Cantet and Robin Campillo, from his novel Entre les Murs (Between the Walls). The students are played by high school pupils who spent a year with Cantet, work-shopping badass versions of their reportedly more docile selves. Monitored by three high-definition cameras—one for the teacher, one for the students, and a third for catching telling bits of spontaneous business on the side—the verbal tennis match between teacher and pupils plays out as a struggle for power and self-expression. Their pungently unforced dialogue, mercifully free of the rap idioms so often dreamed up by white directors, is so unnervingly exuberant that you barely notice the brewing crisis that will test the power limits of both teacher and pupils and call into question what it means to have a good day on the job.
The Class is not a point-of-view movie, nor does it point the finger in any particular direction or, for that matter, idealize any of the players in this struggle—even though the teachers are devoted to their students of all races and religions, the parents are devoted to their children, and the students are neither saints nor devils but skittish adolescents for whom getting the last word is something akin to sensual pleasure. For Cantet, though, language is never just language. Is François connecting with his students or holding them at a safe distance? When this inspired teacher finally snaps and, for a moment, starts sounding like the headmaster in The History Boys, a misunderstanding over the precise meaning of the word "skank" flares with breathtaking speed into a racial incident. At the end of a very long day, François may have scored some pedagogic victories and one human failure, and we watch the teacher's retreat, on which rests nothing less than the fragility of democracy in a racial tinder box.