- This essay will inevitably contain spoilers!
'THE CLASS' (2008)
To say I liked French films would be akin to saying Dracula is quite
fond of blood. Some of my most thought-provoking and uplifting
experiences have been watching Gallic motion pictures, whether they be
made by Melies, Bresson, Clement, Truffaut, Godard, Leconte or Ozon.
Laurent Cantet’s latest film The Class is another intriguing
addition to the list, but not one I would place in the exalted company
above. Primarily, the film concerns one particular group of students
and the relationship they have with their teacher Francois in a
contemporary state school. Thus, in its very premise, the film
subconsciously references many other films spanning the history of
cinema, the subtle echoes of Vigo’s Zero de Conduite(1933)
mirrored in moments that are like an updated version of the classroom
scenes in Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups(1959).
- A review by Richard Harrison (2009)
However, what the film does not do is as noteworthy as what it does.
Thus, there is no sense of what these students do away from the four
walls of the classroom, nor is there much sense of any coherent outside
world (although it is alluded to in references to travelling across
Paris by Metro train). I’m afraid to say that most of the students do
not have any redeeming features, and there is little sense of the
warmth that pervades a film such as The Chorus (Barratier,
2004). Instead, Cantet’s hand-held camera forages midst the rows of
students to illuminate little vignettes of behaviour that, for all its
typical high school bravado, is all too depressingly familiar. Indeed,
if its restricted schoolroom setting is more reminiscent of The
Chorus, its characters often behave with the kind of attitude seen
in a film like La Haine (Kassovitz, 1995).
Perhaps the two most frustrating things about The Class are its
almost obligatory cultural mix (again recalling Kassovitz’s film)- very
few of the students the film focuses on are actually truly French
but instead from its colonial outposts or from overseas. Thus, we have
a full class of students who are not treated equally by the director.
True, to do so might have meant a bewildering succession of faces
without any real attempt to understand individuals, but the result here
is a politically-correct “respect” given to those who (ironically)
often do not even regard themselves as first and foremost French
nationals. The other aspect is the running time- at a shade over 2
hours the film, for me, outstays its welcome by some 20 minutes. There
are moments that could happily have been dispensed with- instead,
Cantet wallows in the scenarios he has created, spending seemingly an
eternity on the closing moment of drama.
Despite these shortcomings, The Class is not a bad film by any
means, and an interesting one in its use of documentary filming
techniques (hand-held camera, absence of music, non-actors playing not
quite themselves but a scripted version). Its success partially
puzzles me- it is not a hugely innovative concept nor particularly
stylishly shot. It is, though, a snapshot of what life is like for many
teachers and pupils alike in an average school, and there are too many
familiar with that situation not to recognise something of themselves
across its substantial running time.
The Class will soon be available on DVD from Optimum Releasing.