Monday, February 23, 2009

The Class

By Elise Nakhnikian

French writer-director Laurent Cantet is one of the best filmmakers alive. Working in the tradition of Robert Bresson, he shows how forces like class, race, and gender can warp lives, and he does it without preaching or pyrotechnics.

His deceptively simple yet engrossing stories contain too many levels of truth to be summed up in one pitch-friendly phrase. They also have an almost documentary sense of reality, partly because Cantet works mainly with nonprofessional actors. Workshopping the script with them for months before shooting, he helps them develop characters who are based on themselves or people they know.

Cantet’s Time Out (2001) is the story of a man too ashamed to tell his family he’s been laid off, who slides into a shadowy secret life parallel to – but increasingly removed from – the comfortable routine his wife and kids still follow. Human Resources (1999) looks at the gulf between blue-collar and white-collar workers through the eyes of a young man, the first in his family to go to college, who takes a summer job in the HR department of the factory where his father has labored for years. Heading South (2006) follows a group of white, middle-class North American women at a Haitian resort, where their relative wealth and the color of their skin makes them the inadvertent oppressors of the local men who serve as their companions – an imbalance we barely bat an eye at when the sexual tourists are men.

Cantet’s latest, The Class, recreates life inside a multicultural Parisian high school to look at what it means to become acculturated and what kids really learn in school. Cantet, whose parents were both schoolteachers, was working on the script when he met François Bégaudeau, a teacher who had written a novel based on his experience at a multiracial Parisian school. The two rewrote the screenplay, merging their stories with the help of frequent Cantet collaborator Robin Campillo.

In the movie, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, Bégaudeau plays Francois Marin, a version of himself. The other teachers are all played by actual teachers, and the kids are students from Belleville, a district much like the one where Bégaudeau taught. Cantet filmed almost entirely inside the school, mostly staying in Marin’s classroom as he teaches French – or tries to. Three digital cameras were always running, one capturing unscripted things kids did when they didn’t think the camera was on them.

Marin uses a kind of Socratic method of teaching, peppering his students with questions to get them to think about what they’re learning and why. The students respond in kind, forcing him to confront some of his own assumptions as his frustration bubbles up, cracking his cool façade. Cultural differences keep getting in the way of communication, and Marin winds up in a toxic standoff with Souleymane (Franck Keita), an alienated Malian immigrant; the rebellious and outspoken Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani), and her quiet but equally strong-willed friend Khoumba (Rachel Regulier). For a while, Marin’s job appears to be in jeopardy, but when Souleymane winds up taking the fall, you wonder if he ever really had a chance.

Cantet says he wanted to make a movie that upends the false pieties of Hollywood films like Dead Poets Society, "where the teacher is always a guru figure, always says exactly the right thing. Our teacher is the opposite of the Robin Williams character – he takes risks, gets it wrong sometimes, asks questions more than he provides answers.”

Mission accomplished.

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