I have to dissent from the love-fest for The Class. Considering the raves from around the world, I may be alone.
The French film's "tomatometer" score on movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes is an astounding 97%, a higher rating than Oscar darling Slumdog Millionaire or any Best Picture winner of this decade. Winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes and Oscar-nominated, The Class has quickly become a can't-miss cinema event.
Director Laurent Cantet's film, based on teacher/author/actor François Bégaudeau's book, follows one rough year for a middle school teacher and his students in a working class, immigrant neighborhood outside Paris. The movie is earning praise for its cinéma vérité style, raw performances by non-actors, and absence of overtly didactic messaging. In short, it's the antithesis of every clichéd, teacher-as-savior movie that Hollywood has vomited onto the silver screen since 1955's Blackboard Jungle. (I have a soft spot for Glenn Ford, but let's not forget the lunacy there: he ultimately wins over his students by accepting an invitation to a mid-class knife fight with Vic Morrow.)
Note: This movie review contains spoilers.
The Class may be a watchable, stark departure from other schoolhouse flicks, but its stripped-down stylization and "gritty" subject matter is scoring it a free pass from serious consideration of the startling hollowness of its narrative.
An illusion of authenticity is not enough to sustain a dramatic film. I have no doubt that every exchange that fourth-year French teacher M. Marin experiences with his students and colleagues has been replicated countless times in schools across the world. Yet individual, reality-inspired moments do not a substantive movie make. Two hours of a wholly authentic, closed circuit security feed from a random classroom would certainly not qualify for the Palme d'Or.
The filmmakers' decision to set the story entirely within the school campus is limiting. By design, we learn virtually nothing about the lives of the main character, Marin, or his colleagues. Information about the students is unavailable beyond their guarded behavior in class. The characterization is so paper-thin that the audience is forced to assign traits to the teachers and students. Marin is earnest and handsome, so we are invited to infer that he's smart and trying hard to do the right thing. His students are sullen and resistant, so we are invited to view them as unwitting martyrs.
This lack of characterization is troubling because the conclusion of the film invites judgment against Marin for underestimating his students. For example, in a final scene Marin learns, to his--and the audience's-- shock, that Esmeralda, a contrarian student, has independently read Plato's Republic. Darn, we're supposed think, he really didn't know his students. Well, since we don't really know either him or them beyond his toothless, meandering lessons and their uncooperative behavior, the revelation rings arbitrary and trite. (That is, unless we fill in the gaping blanks and accept the previously inarticulate, monotone-when-reading-aloud Esmeralda as a secret scholar.)
Following Esmeralda's bombshell, it's clear that Marin blew it all year. To compound his failure, Marin gives a brush-off to an at-risk girl who reaches out to him on the last day of class. Then we see an extended, silent wide shot of the empty classroom with toppled chairs. The movie ends on this utterly bleak note.
The Class is a film with an identity crisis. For the first 90 minutes, it's a fly-on-the-wall portrait of a struggling teacher not connecting with his students. That all unravels in the last half-hour when Marin fatally crosses a line by hurling an epithet at two of his students, instigating a rebellion that culminates in the expulsion of anti-hero student Souleymane.
The climactic discipline hearing for Souleymane is an audience-insulting kangaroo court, in which the principal--up to this point supportive and sympathetic--delivers long diatribes to Souleymane's non-French-speaking mother, even though he knows she can't understand him. Souleymane is ultimately expelled, likely to be shipped back to Mali. The audience is left with the impression that the adults within the school establishment are alternately insensitive, petty, and vindictive.
This faculty-bashing is reinforced in two other scenes. First, a teacher in the staff lounge callously follows an announcement that a student's mother has been arrested and may be deported by... popping champagne to announce her pregnancy! Then, in a staff meeting, a substantive conversation about creating a discipline system is curtailed--without a murmur of dissent-- in favor of a long, inane discussion about the lounge's coffee machine.
Is this school nothing more than a parade of grown-up idiots? If so, why am I watching a movie about it?
And then there's M. Marin, the well-dressed central character who may be, short of dealing out physical abuse, the most inept teacher one can imagine. Just some of Marin's lowest moments include:
--Forcing students to share personal information while disclosing nothing in return. Marin publicly asks students cringe-worthy questions like "What about your body makes you ashamed?"
--Being unable to articulate a definition of the word "succulent," which forms the basis of his vocabulary lesson.
--Handing out The Diary of Anne Frank, making the students read aloud, and then delivering an explanatory speech with no opportunity for students to voice opinions or questions.
--Providing no coherent rationale when questioned on why he spends substantial time teaching arcane verb tenses.
--Calling two female students "skanks" and then creating an angry mob scene on the blacktop by confronting the students with the shifting rationalization that (A) they misunderstood him, (B) teachers are allowed to say things that students cannot, and (C) he didn't know "skank" meant "prostitute."
--Hosting a largely unstructured class "debate" that devolves into racist catcalling. Marin lets the debacle continue until the situation is way out of hand.
The Class sprints away so furiously from Hollywood archetypes that it finds itself at another, equally limited pole, one populated not by miracle teachers (Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers), but by hapless dunces; not by students waiting to be coaxed out of their shells (To Sir, With Love, Stand and Deliver) but by youths who cannot identify a single thing that they gain from school. Is there no middle ground between Jerry Bruckheimer's sap and M. Marin's unremitting tragedy?
More dramatic and realistic portraits of the messy, fascinating guts of school life can be found in the documentaries I Am a Promise--focusing on a Philadelphia elementary school-- and Hard Times at Douglass High--focusing on a Baltimore high school, both by Susan and Alan Raymond.
I am glad that The Class is jump-starting conversations about classrooms. I regret, however, that the actions of people as irresponsible as M. Marin and his colleagues, are the jumping-off points.
Dan Brown is a teacher and the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle, a memoir of his first year teaching in the Bronx. (He -- perhaps jealously -- thinks his book would make a better movie than The Class.)