AFI Fest Review: Laurent Cantet's The Class
by Alex Billington
November 3, 2008
The first film I saw at the AFI Fest in Hollywood was a French feature called The Class. It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes earlier this year and looked pretty interesting, even though most of the winners coming out of that fest I don't usually like. But this time around, it was a definite change of a pace - The Class is an utterly fascinating look at French society as told through the experiences of a middle school teacher. I really loved this film, so much so that I didn't want it to end, I wanted to just keep watching. It's quite rare that a film truly transcends being great cinematic art, but this does just that. It's so much more than just a narrative feature, it's a captivating exploration into human nature and the progress of society.
Novelist François Bégaudeau plays Mr. Marin, a middle school French teacher modeled after his real life self, equivalent to that of an English teacher in American schools. He works at a public school in Paris, France and deals with some of the toughest kids in the city. It's not that all of them are violent, they're just rebellious, disruptive, and distracted, and none of them like being in school, just like every typical kid. Told within one school year's worth of time, The Class explores Mr. Marin's struggle to manage the students as well as his failure, and success, at teaching them. His group of students are made up of a racially and socially diverse group of teens that are, as a whole, the antagonist in this compelling film.
One of the few comparisons I can make, in my opinion, is to American Teen, another highly underrated look at teenagers in school. What worked so well there, and what works so well here, is the fact that we all went to school at some point in our lives and we can all connect with the feelings these kids have. But for the first time (that I've ever seen), we're now able to get a glimpse at the struggles the teacher himself must go through almost every single day; and now I realize why it's such an admirable job. Sure the film may be a bit too long and could use some additional editing, but I didn't care, because it could've gone on for hours and I would've continued to sit through it, absorbing every last gripping classroom discussion.
What I love so much about this film is its adherence to its own idea. It never explores the character of Mr. Marin outside of the school, whether it be in a relationship or even the kind of food he eats or monetary issues. It only looks at his relationship with the students, which is part of what makes it so fascinating. I've always personally enjoyed the idea of education, but looking at it the way it's presented in The Class, with a tinge of politics and taste of French society, I've discovered an allure to teaching that didn't exist before. I can do nothing but suggest this film only to those looking to watch something brilliant and mesmerizing. I'll be more than happy if it wins the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, because it deserves it.
AFI Fest Rating: 9 out of 10