The Class - A Film with no class

The Class directed by Laurent Cantet won the Palme D'Or at Cannes and is in the running for best Foreign Film at the Oscars in 2009.

Since I consider this to be one of the worst films I have ever seen, and since it has received a 94 rating on Metacritic, I feel impelled to explain my very negative reaction to the film.

Aside from the endless stereotyping, the poor acting, the 'faux' realism, the impoverished use of the camera, the sheer banality of the setting, and the lack of insight about learning and education, why does this film fail so miserably?

First, there is the hubris of the writer of the film, François Bégaudeau (based on his book) also insisting that he be the main actor. This leads to the rather ironic situation of an actor who cannot act supposedly adding realism to the setting because realism, in the eyes of Cantet is obviously premised on amateurism. The more amateur, the more likely the characters will be believed. It is clear that he has learned nothing from the last decade of 'reality' TV. It is also clear that neither Bégaudeau nor Cantet have ever watched any of the films and television shows that have come out over the last twenty-five years that have as their central theme, the classroom and by extension the educational experience. Many of the young actors in this film are so poorly directed that they reveal the sheer artifice of the script with nearly every word that they say.

Second, Cantet, obviously decided that a moving camera was the best way to shoot for realism. So, the camera jumps around like news broadcasts do and like MTV used to with music videos from 1985-1995. This style, now a cliché offers nothing of substance to the thematics of the film.

What are those thematics? French society is now diverse. Their educational system is made up of well-meaning teachers who have yet to come to grips with the challenges of multiculturalism. Black students from Mali like soccer. Moroccan students like their national team. Some girls are aggressive for no apparent reason and others are intelligent but not in the right way. Oh yes, one of the black students shoots some photographs and momentarily becomes a hero before he is thrown out for undisciplined behaviour.

There are many shots of the heroic Bégaudeau playing teacher against increasingly difficult odds in a series of lengthy sequences that are notable for their sheer lack of insight into the characters let alone the teacher. There are the usual ill-informed comments about gay people accompanied by laughter on the part of the students that makes them seem to be idiots which is by the way, the outcome of the film.

At the end, the students are just not capable of really learning except for a few naturally gifted ones. There is the usual, conventional stereotype of the Chinese student who against all the odds actually applies himself and is able to answer the 'difficult' questions posed by the teacher. The banality is heightened to perhaps its greatest level of superficiality by the depiction of the school Principal who could have walked out of 50 films of the last two decades, some even from France.

What happened here? Well, this film is the cutting edge of a major crisis in the cinema. Perhaps the filmmakers and the writer don't watch much contemporary film and television. Perhaps, they were self-consciously engaging in depicting banality by reproducing it. Perhaps they were critiquing that banality. Even if I were to grant them that latitude, the film has very little to say. The crisis is in this false conception that realism is derived from and dependent upon truth. Neither documentaries nor fiction films can ever escape the conundrums of realism versus narrative. From a structural point of view, both genres share many different elements which is why a Clint Eastwood film on Iwo Jima can end up being more 'realistic' than many documentaries.

This is not the place to enter in this lengthy and historically important debate. Suffice to say, that Cantet seems to be uninterested in exploring either the medium he is using, the story he is telling or the audiences he is addressing. This is the result of an aversion to history, theory and creative engagement.

Mark Olson wrote the following in the LA Times last December: "In focusing on a single class, filled with kids from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, captured with a documentary immediacy, the film finds a snapping, pinging rhythm to present the classroom sequences, a seesaw balance between creative chaos and genuine disorder. Perhaps never before has a film been able to wring such drama from diagramming sentences and discussing the fine points of proper verb tenses." I would challenge the readers of this web site to make a list of all the films that you have seen over the years that deals with the classroom experience. Olson can only say this because he has not examined that history.

Cantet in one of many interviews claims that the film reflects the diversity of France. It does reflect precisely the superficial stereotypes of ethnic diversity with nary a moment of insight into the families we encounter through their children. This sad reductive film makes almost no use of the student actors who could have, by virtue of their own lives recounted some things of great interest to us all. I would suggest that Cantet and his crew and his writer watch "High School" by Frederick Wiseman, a film that struggles to find not one, but many voices in the maelstrom of the learning process in school. The film was made 41 years ago.
Comment by Monique

Needless to say I have a very different take on La classe.

Despite what you perceive as the endless stereotyping, the poor acting, the faux realism, the impoverished use of the camera, the sheer banality of the setting, and the lack of insight about learning and education, I saw in the film vestiges of my own experience as a high school student in Quebec. While I was growing up in the sixties in Quebec, the Catholic Church controlled education. However, in so many ways the presence of France loomed larger than the Church. This came through in obvious ways such as in textbooks, or examples given to understand the world such as the land mass of France fits twenty times in the land mass of Quebec (something that I have never forgotten), and other such esoteric facts. And then there were numerous but perhaps more subtle ways that France as a superior country loomed as the subtext of education in Quebec at that time.

For me one of the most poignant moments in the film is when the teacher tries to teach Rimbaud which was clearly intended to highlight the gap between him and the students. The gap was not only because Rimbaud holds such an influence on French literature and art but because he represents a certain idea of education which fails to take in to account the value and richness of the student's experience.