The Class


Reviewed by: Val Kermode

Laurent Cantet's Palme d'Or winner The Class
"Teachers everywhere will give a smile of recognition as an experienced teacher takes a new colleague through his class list – “nice, nice, not nice, not nice at all…”" | Photo: UniFrance

Esmeralda Ouertani has been described by one of her friends as “like the Duracell bunny - she never stops.” She is one of the stars of this film, set in the Francoise Dolto High School in Paris’s 20th arrondissement, one of the city’s most culturally mixed areas. She is also a pupil at the school, as are all the rest of the film’s class.

The Class, which has already won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and is nominated for best foreign language film at the Oscars this month, is based on the book Entre Les Murs by François Bégaudeau. As a new graduate, Bégaudeau spent a year teaching in this French high school and now plays himself in the film. Cantet wanted to work with real people rather than trained actors, so the pupils worked on the film during their summer vacation, along with some of the real parents and staff of the school.

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Much of the film was improvised, resulting in an astonishing degree of realism. Teachers everywhere will give a smile of recognition as an experienced teacher takes a new colleague through his class list – “nice, nice, not nice, not nice at all…” When one lets off steam in a long and bitter rant about his pupils no one looks more than mildly concerned, and a staff meeting gives equal priority to the issues of discipline and the coffee machine.

In the classroom Francois (Bégaudeau) is teaching French grammar to his class of 14 year olds, being persistently questioned by Esmeralda and sulked at by Khoumba (Rachel Regulier). Wey, the son of Chinese illegal immigrants, is probably the cleverest in the class, but has difficulty expressing himself in French. Then there’s Turkish Burak (Burak Ozyilmaz), Arab Rabah (Rabah Nait Oufella) and Souleymane (Franck Keita) from Mali. The arrival of a new pupil, Carl, threatens the delicate balance of personalities.

Francois uses the Diary Of Anne Frank as a starting point to persuade the class to write their self-portraits. This leads to a free-ranging discussion about shame in which racist and sexist sparks fly, though alongside the abuse the kids are continually reassuring one another. Despite the playground taunts of “Mali man” and “Caribbean shit” there is a constant warmth and acceptance, encouraged by François with his tolerant and positive approach.

By way of plot development, an unfortunate choice of words leads to an exchange between François and the unwilling Souleymane, causing the latter to storm out of the classroom and resulting in a disciplinary hearing, the message being that you can’t win them all. It also shows the limitations of even this very good teacher, and just a hint of self-doubt.

But plot is the least important element here. What makes this so watchable is the realistic interaction of the young students, the glances, the giggles, the slang. (This must have been a challenge to subtitle.) It is also a highly topical film, dealing with issues of integration and what it means nowadays to be French.

Reviewed on: 10 Feb 2009
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Quasi-documentary about a group of Parisian school kids.
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Director: Laurent Cantet

Writer: François Bégaudeau, Robin Campillo, Laurent Cantet

Starring: François Bégaudeau, Wei Huang, Esmeralda Ouertani, Franck Keita

Year: 2008

Runtime: 128 minutes

Country: France

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