- This essay will inevitably contain spoilers!

'THE CLASS' (2008)

- A review by Richard Harrison (2009)

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).

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.