The Class

Movies Reviews Laurent Cantet
The Class

Speed Racer

Release Date: Jan. 30

Director: Laurent Cantet

Writers: François Bégaudeau, Robin Campillo, Laurent Cantet

Cinematographer: Pierre Milon

Starring: François Bégaudeau,

Studio/Run Time: Sony Pictures Classics, 128 mins.

The schoolroom drama—one teacher versus a room full of wild adolescents—has been so debased by Hollywood that the mention of another one, even if it arrives from Europe, causes both of my knees to jerk. These films document the existence of a mythical maverick who can fight an ineffective education system and inspire hoodlums to greatness. But I’m pleased to discover that The Class, like the real world, has no use for such fairy tales.

Speed Racer

Beginning with his 1999 feature Human Resources, French filmmaker Laurent Cantet has shown a steady fascination with people in the workplace. In his previous three features he seemed particularly interested not in the jobs themselves so much as the boundaries of work and personal life or the boundaries between one person’s work and another person’s leisure.

The Class, winner of the Palme D’or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, seems like a slight departure from that interest, until its tensions begin to escalate. A teacher of French in a Parisian high school works to control, educate, and if he has time after that, inspire his students. The French title, Entre les murs, literally translates to “between the walls,” and true enough, the film never leaves the campus. We don’t follow Monsieur Marin home or learn anything about his personal life. We don’t follow his students to witness their struggles with their families.

But under Cantet’s microscope, the school is a junction for everything going on anyway. It’s a microcosm of urban life, a collection of factions vying for territory: committees, advisory boards, student representatives, parents, and teachers negotiating within the curriculum, lobbying for a better coffee machine, advocating for students, and protecting their jobs. Ever in a standoff with Marin, the students taunt him with tidbits about his personal life, walk him into logical conundrums, or goad him into responding to things he should probably ignore. They stoke his brewing frustration, but in the blink of an eye the dynamic can shift; he can inadvertently hurt a troublemaker by implying the boy has a limited capacity for learning, or he can let fly some off-the-cuff invective that functions like a spark near a powder keg.

It’s a complex world between those walls, but the film seems casual throughout, so raw and realistic that someone wandering into the theater might assume it’s a documentary about the difficulties of classroom management. There’s humor and subtlety, and as with all great classroom dramas, there’s genuine insight. Half Nelson took the one-man-inspiration movie and flipped it on its head. The fourth season of The Wire explored radical solutions for reclaiming education’s lost causes. And The Class picks apart the competing interests that function at the lowest rungs of the educational system to hold kids, teachers and parents at loggerheads.

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