A class’s thoughts are always elsewhere. The lesson (whatever the lesson) is an albatross around every student’s neck. That’s why teaching is difficult. How to spark interest in reading and writing when teenage life is rioting at the margins? Even for adults (even for teachers) sex is more interesting than grammar. At fifteen, sex takes precedence over oxygen. Not to mention Beebo; one’s MySpace profile; who said what on MSN last night. It’s a miracle that anyone listens to anything teachers’ say. But occasionally they do, and we call this: an education. In The Class, the class listen quite often. The question is: what do they learn?
Shot in a neo-realist style where everything looks like a documentary (but isn’t), The Class is about a teacher in a reasonably tough Parisian high-school. He teaches grammar, and what looks like a bit of literature. His student’s come from a social commentary-friendly ethnic mix. Over the course of one school year (nine months, for people with real jobs) we follow the class and their teacher as they bond, fight, learn, forget and vie for control. The teacher is not exactly an inspirational figure (no Goldie Hawn in Wildcats moment for him), but he isn’t Mr. Bastard out of Dickens either. The emphasis here is on middling reality.
When a movie is made in French with a budget of three euros and a cast of non-actors, it’s easy for critics to get excited. Everything about The Class is so utterly the opposite of Dangerous Minds that the movie scarcely has to do anything but exist in order to seem more socially relevant. To say that not much happens (and not much happens slowly) is like criticising Palestinian refugees for their fashion choices. But look – no disrespect to Palestine – but The Class is kinda dull. Yes, everyone’s dedication to realism is admirable. Yes, the movie does address pressing social concerns. But would it have killed the director to have more happen in the movie?! I know one kid gets expelled, but it’s still a pretty slow year.
There’s the quiet, studious Asian kid, and the rebellious, vulnerable African kid, and the shy, pretty girl that everyone likes, and the mouthy, Stockard Channing tough girl who stands up to the boys… And ok, I’m generalising like fury when I describe them, but it’s still a pretty accurate summation of a class of characters who struggle to break the high-school movie-mould. True, there are many real kids like these, but there are also far more interesting (and surprising) types of kids. Why not (here’s a thought) have an Asian kid who’s lazy? Or one who’s a smart-ass? Why not have an African kid who does his work quietly? These kids exist too. But no – The Class is out to “highlight” social problems that have had a search-beam on them for decades. Heaven forbid we should meet a kid who surprises us.
Their teacher (François Bégaudeau) seems like a nice guy. He’s very human throughout. When he loses his temper at a crucial moment and says something no teacher should say; you see how pride undoes him. It’s one of the truly tricky bits of teaching; never to respond in anger. And the guy pays a price for momentarily forgetting the golden rule. We don’t get any view of him outside the classroom. Like most movie teachers’, he seems to exist as a hologram projected from a book. He cares, he frets; he enjoys mixed success. He’s a pro.
What The Class doesn’t capture is the riotous, life-affirming weirdness of teaching; the way students – fairly frequently – burst into song; the sublime lunacy of student questions (actual example: “How much poison does it take to kill a horse?”), or those moments where the teacher can’t speak because they’re too busy laughing. I teach. I know these moments. Yes, there’s the deathly drum-beat of “Boring!” But we have fun too (and I’m talking about the rough classes). I longed for a moment in The Class which would show how blissfully strange kids are. I longed for a teacher who cracks jokes. This movie mistakes tedium for realism.