by Sam Juliano
A festive and star-studded atmosphere greeted Lincoln Center Film Society Chairperson Ann Tenenbaum as she took to the podium to introduce program director Richard Pena, before the festival’s opening feature The Class (Entre les Murs), was screened before a near-sell out crowd at Avery Fisher Hall as the opening feature of the 46th annual New York Film Festival on Friday evening at 8:30 P.M. Tenenbaum drew laughter from the audience when she suggested that those who bypassed the scheduled Obama-McCain debate on television to see the French Palme’s Or winner, “made the right choice.” Pena applauded the board of directors’ decision to open the popular film event with the French film, and he introduced director Laurent Cantet to sustained and rousing applause. Cantet, who helmed the impressive Human Resources several years back, then introduced his producers and writers as well as ten members of his youthful cast, all of whom flew in from Paris for the big event.
Those with an aversion for “talky” movies with subtitles that flash by at breakneck speed may well take issue with this penetrating classroom drama that accentuates budding anti-intellectualism in worldwide classrooms. It certainly is a film that requires that extra immersion, and I’ll admit that my seat in the next-to-last row of the third tier of the balcony did offer a logistical challenge for unabbreviated concentration. Still, I was fairly impressed by much in this enlightening film, which by and large disavowed the traditional emotional hooks for a more cerebral treatment, much in the tradition of a film like Alf Sjoberg’s Torment, which was written by Ingmar Bergman, or more recently the wonderful The History Boys, which pretty much blends the cerebral and the emotional. Hence, The Class is virtually cliche-free, and it steers clear of the tear-jerking histrionics of films like Goodbye Mr. Chips and Dead Poets Society, two films with a completely different agenda. (For the record I still like both of them). Interestingly, the film was written by Francois Begaudeau, who also plays the lead as the innovative, devoted and often unconventional teacher in the film. Begaudeau taught French in a Paris Jr. High School, and in large measure the new film is a recollection of those experiences, where Francois Martin is willing to take risks with his student assemblage, who are a roudy bunch from diverse ethnic traditions, most of whom respond to academic posturing with their own personal questions and problems.
Included in this diverse multicultural mix of tough-talking adolescents whom he treats as near-equals, (they are played by actual students, hence they are non-professional actors) are a black girl named Khoumba, who declines to read passages from Anne Frank’s diary that she is asked to do, instead exhibiting testiness toward the teacher; Wei, an intelligent illegal immigrant from China who questions the “character” of his peers; Esmerelda, a rude and outspoken girl who claims to have read Plato’s Republic on her own, and who is cynical about her teacher’s verbal gifts; Souleymane, a trouble-making Muslim, and Carl, a Caribbean who was expelled from other schools. The Souleymane character’s transformation from one who tries to get Francois to admit he’s a homosexual to one who lauds his teacher for his gifts and motivational skills is the film’s one emotional hook.
It is worth noting that unlike many classroom dramas, where there is always some kind of a plot afoot to notify the school authorities of the ‘wrongdoings’ of idealistic educators, and parents are portrayed as ignorant, suspicious and overprotective, in The Class the parent-teacher talks are rewarding and humane. It is clear that Francois’ mission is to win over his students by showing them that he is one of them, as any classroom teacher knows well, this tactic invariably backfires, as authority breaks down. He is left to his own devices and instincts to work his way around this poor show of judgement, and unlike most educators thrust in a similar situation, he still generally succeeds, as at the end of the school year he distributes copies of a booklet he’s had produced with self-portraits and photographic illustrations, which is applauded. But almost as if to stress what we already know–that there is always a price to pay for success, at the end of the school year one girl approaches Francois and tells him she has learned absolutely nothing in the class. While there is an ongoing war between the African students over their favorite sports teams that turns ugly, the film is suffused with more than it’s share of humorous interchanges, all of which involve the ability and wit of the teacher to break down the initial skepticism and ignorance of the students. This gives the film some relief from its mostly unremittingly tense unfolding. Reportedly, Cantet shaped the film by permitting the actors to improvise before settling on a final script, giving this near-documentary a cinema-verite look and feel. The visual look of the film is resplendent and is the work of cinematographer Pierre Milon, whose work here is deftly edited by one of the screenwriters Robin Campillo, who does a fine job making the film flow seamlessly through the frantic classroom discourse and endless close-ups. But Campillo’s screen writing credit with both Cantet and Begadeau is of course the film’s most vital element. Mr. Cantet does possess an uncanny gift with non-professionals, previously utilizing amateurs in the aforementioned Human Resources, which dramatizes a factory labor struggle that end up dividing a family. It can safely be asserted that professionals couldn’t have replicated the authenticity and seamlessness evoked here.
Alas, the film is also rather grueling to sit through, not the least of which there are too many confrontational and non-productive faculty meetings, and we really get to see little teaching from Martin, who of course is involved in trying to break down his student body’s various character flaws. In this sense, while there is undeniably a strong sense of purpose in this highly unconventional film, it is unyielding in its style and rhythm, which for a film that runs for over two hours is almost too much of a good thing. One eventually gets lost in all the histrionics, and there’s no emotional underpinning for one to emote. It’s a shame, because The Class has much to offer, since it’s one of the only classroom films where the students do most of the talking.
Note: Lucille and I attended this opening feature of the festival at Avery Fisher Hall amidst a gala reception and flashing bulbs at the elegant home and concert hall of the New York Philharmonic on Friday, September 26th at 8:30 P.M. We were forced to remain in our vehicle until 7:00 when street parking restrictions were lifted. We ventured over to a nice sandwich shop near the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and had turkey, tomato and cheese paninis and ice teas.