In 2008, The Class won the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival and was praised by critics the world over. After watching the movie it’s not hard to see why it was praised so much. It was based on a book by novelist and teacher Francois Begaudeau who plays a version of himself in the film.
During the movie, we see a class of teenagers in an inner-city Paris school during French lessons. During the course of the year they tackle Anne Frank and self-portraits, but perhaps more importantly they tackle the issues of race, bad-behaviour and insolence. Some of the teenagers are singled out for attention, including Esmeralda, Khoumba, Carl and in particular Souleymane (who is the main focus of the climax).
While the kids do steal the show, the main character is actually Mr. Marin, the French teacher played by Begaudeau. While his years of experience have made him somewhat more able to deal with the awful behaviour inside of his class, following Marin as the main character allows the audience to see how the less experienced and prepared teachers cope with the inner city children. One of his colleagues nearly has a mental breakdown about halfway through the film because he is so disillusioned. Begaudeau is also very natural in his role, possibly because he is a teacher in real life, but there are glimmers of emotion that show how well is he really coping. Observe the look he has in the opening scenes, the weariness in his voice as he announces to the new recruits how long he’s been there, and his eventual, if restrained, outburst towards the end of the film – he’s obviously sick and tired, even if deep down he does love his job.
All of the kids were real inner-city Parisians, giving the film a very realistic edge. At some stages the kids are so naturalistic that The Class almost feels like a fly-on-the-wall documentary rather than a movie with a real scenario that had to be followed. Sometimes the lines are so blurred that it’s hard to see where the drama ends and where real life begins: anyone who has ever been to a school like this will recognise the different characters and situations immediately.
Perhaps the most shocking element of the film is how the issue of race is tackled. Paris is obviously a very multicultural city, yet the racial tensions running through the class are obvious. In the glimpses we get of break-time in the yard, the kids stick to their own racial groups, highlighting the fact that they are hardly united despite being in the same four walls for four to five days a week. In one scene, a discussion about the Africa Cup of Nations turns ugly when a row breaks out between Malian Souleymane and Moroccan Cherif. Carl, who comes from the West Indies, aggravates the situation by saying that he supports France and believes that he is French, something that Souleymane takes exception to.
The Class is brave in the sense that it does not have any heroes and villains. While the kids are disruptive and unwilling to learn, Mr. Marin is at fault for behaving in an insulting manner and not explaining himself to Souleymane when he asks about his bad report (which leads to a nasty incident in the climax). The other teachers refer to the kids as “animals” and claim that punishment isn’t worth it because the kids don’t care about discipline. It doesn’t have an uplifting ending – if anything the ending is ambiguous, making the audience wonder whether anything will actually change when Mr. Marin goes back to teach after the summer.
Ironically, it feels as if the only person who actually learns anything during the course of the year is Mr. Marin – he seems to have a realisation that there are no easy solutions, especially with the complexities of the Souleymane incident.
The Class is well worth two hours of anybody’s time – it doesn’t even feel like it goes on for that long! There’s enough events and sly humour to change what could have turned out to be a hard slog through the difficulties of inner-city schools into a gripping, engaging film that was very much deserving of the Palme D’Or.