This superb film about a year in the life of students in a rough inner-city school in Paris takes the genre of social realism to a new level. Based on François Bégaudeau’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, The Class is the first French film in 21 years to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year. And deservedly so.
In a timely look at France’s spiralling social and economic upheaval, following the wake of the 2007 riots, director Laurent Cantet delivers his signature docu-style drama with a bracing dose of reality. Bégaudeau plays Monsieur Marin, whose teaching is a cross between old school discipline and new age liberalism, in a diverse class of tough, street smart kids who pose relentless challenges.
Writing the screenplay and playing the lead role in a film based on your own book is a novel way of insuring it’s not lost in translation, and, writer Bégaudeau skilfully accomplishes this as Monsieur Marin. He is at once charismatic and flawed, both empathetic of his charges backgrounds, and culturally insensitive. In one scene, he remonstrates with two of his female students, calling them ‘skanks’. His propensity to slip into political incorrectness provokes the audience to draw their own judgments and question their own boundaries.
The real life students who make up Monsieur Marin’s French class, of African, Arab, Asian and native Parisian descent, are commendable in their youthful verve and sharp wit. Their cultural diversity provides colourful debate and heated tension among themselves and their teacher. It’s a catalyst for the director to broach issues of racial tensions, class and national identity with the lightest of touches.
But unsurprisingly, despite international rave reviews and the award, its reception in France has been mixed. Most probably because it deals with home truths concerning the proletariat that sit uncomfortably with the predominant right, white middle class. When a new black student from a former colony in the Caribbean declares himself French, he is met with derision and jeers from his colleagues. Their reaction would undoubtedly draw gasps of indignation in a country that prides itself on bridging racial divides by uniting its citizens under a singular patriarchal identity. The film ironically highlights this failure of a united ‘French’ identity, and more worryingly, the next generation’s disillusionment of it.
‘Dead Poets Society’ and ‘Dangerous Minds’ it certainly is not, and a far cry from Christophe Barratier‘s enchanting ‘The Chorus’, of 2004. But if you’re looking for an urban school drama that tells it like it is, look no further. The Class makes the grade.