Saturday, February 28, 2009

In the Line of Fire: The Class

Laurent Cantet’s The Class has more in common with Saving Private Ryan than Dead Poets Society. This is, yes, another portrait of a passionate and compassionate teacher who is dedicated to shaping the minds of his teenage students over the course of a school year. But so often in this film, based on a memoir by screenwriter and lead actor Francois Begaudeau, schoolwork is to this classroom what politics was to the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944: incidental. First and foremost, this is a story of survival. The classroom belongs to the teacher, and yet he is the invading army, relentlessly trying to overcome tank traps of disinterest and land mines of disobedience in order to fulfill his mission to educate. Alas, some days he is cut down by the bullets of adolescent shenanigans so quickly that he never gets to fight the fight.

As with Steven Spielberg’s unforgettable depiction of D-Day, the gut-wrenching tangibility of this film’s battle is its triumph. The Class unfolds in a space so small that the action seems to take place in our lap, as if we have the one empty seat in the classroom of Mr. Marin (Begaudeau), who teaches French at a private school in Paris. The resulting claustrophobia reminds of 12 Angry Men, though the juror’s room in Sidney Lumet’s classic is airy by comparison. Within these walls there are good days, when the students are upbeat and engaged, and there are bad days, when the spiritedness of youth explodes like a powder keg. Mostly, however, Mr. Marin’s class epitomizes the term “controlled chaos.” Fittingly, as high or as low as the mood is at any given moment, things always seem an instant away from falling apart. Despite a consistently bright mise en scene that shames the overt weather cues of Doubt, The Class is wrapped in an aura of tenuousness.

All of this makes for a rather taxing cinematic experience. More often than not in this movie, at least two people are speaking at the same time – and that’s when things are going well. The cacophony is overwhelming to say the least, especially for non-French speakers trying to keep up with the subtitles. Perhaps parents or teachers will take it all in stride like Mr. Marin, who withstands most of the disorder with the kind of unflinching stoicism famously displayed by Robert Duvall’s Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. For me, however, there were times I wanted to scream at the kids to calm down and shut the fuck up. That’s a compliment. There’s nothing about The Class that suggests its primary goal is to generate sympathy for teachers, but it accomplishes that task anyway. I walked out of my screening feeling guilty for all the times growing up when I quite intentionally made things harder for my teachers. Their patience is deserving of sainthood.

Having said that, one of the most interesting aspects of The Class is its lack of romanticism for the teacher-student relationship. There are no remarkable Stand And Deliver makeovers to be found here. Sure, some underachieving students surprise on occasion, but more often than not the dedicated students do well while the others appear to tread water. Is Mr. Marin bringing out the best in his kids? Is he holding them back, failing to challenge them? Even he can’t be sure. The film leaves it open to interpretation. Mr. Marin’s only inarguable triumph is his dedication. Every day he’s trying. His Sisyphean task is to slip academics into the ever-so-brief lapses in his students’ ongoing efforts to learn about themselves.

In a strategic attempt to accomplish this, Mr. Marin allows the line between work and play to blur. His class in no way resembles the throw-away-the-books anarchy fostered in Dead Poets Society by Robin Williams’ John Keeting. Instead, Mr. Marin attempts to loosen the reins just enough so that his students won’t focus solely on their imprisonment. In short, he attempts to win their trust, even allowing a student to openly question him about his sexuality. For a time, this works, but it proves to be Mr. Marin’s undoing. Like Grizzly Man subject Timothy Treadwell, Mr. Marin eventually makes the mistake of complacency, forgetting that the protective instinct he has for his students only goes one way. Teens, as we know, aren’t altogether different from wild animals: when they spot weakness, they exploit it. In packs, they are especially dangerous.

And yet the students in The Class aren’t demonized either. They are teens behaving as teens. The performances here are unrestrained as if unscripted while working toward a calculated conclusion that is fraught with ambiguity – contrasting relief with regret, success with shortfall and optimism with disappointment. At the end of the film, Mr. Marin wonders what the children have learned during the year, and they wonder the same, leaving the truth unclear. Perhaps an equally important question is what, if anything, Mr. Marin has learned. Teaching in a city where multiracial classrooms are more than just a politically correct made-for-TV fantasy, Mr. Marin faces unusual challenges. While the smiles on the kids’ faces assure that the forthcoming summer will pass too quickly, the expression on Mr. Marin’s face suggests that for him summer won’t pass quickly enough. Once you’ve been bloodied in battle, the real world never looks the same.


Richard Bellamy said...

Your allusion to Marin's task as being Sisyphean and your Saving Private Ryan analogy really capture exactly what teaching is like even in the best of circumstances. I know from experience.

Also, as you say, I like how the film doesn't end with Marin miraculously saving his students or making them see the light. He only gets so far - and then he has to continue plugging away the next year.

The film is well worth seeing. Also, from experience, I found myself laughing out loud when the film realistically captures the kinds of debates a teacher gets into every day!

Daniel said...

Great review and excellent comparison to SPR. Lke hokahey, I an appreciate Francois' struggle from experience, in my case three years in an inner-city school with a student almost exclusively made up of immigrants (the rest being African-American).

Whether or not I've earned sainthood is questionable; I just hope the students are on their way with a better sense of what they have to do to succeed in the world (and it has nothing to do with reading, writing, and 'rithmetic).

The Film Doctor said...

Interesting review. You wrote of the students' "ongoing efforts to learn about themselves." What I've noticed are students with an ongoing effort to distract themselves. As a teacher, one never entirely knows if one has succeeded, but it is encouraging to hear of a new movie that resists the Hollywood cliches of teachers.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, all!

FilmDr: There probably is an ongoing effort among teens to distract themselves. That sounds about right. Especially in the classroom. What I was trying to hint at with that line was the idea that the teenage years are the formative years, where kids try on personas (as with the long-haired kid in this film) and see what fits.

I have a great respect for teachers who must be patient enough to let kids figure things out on their own while trying to fill some of the gaps with actual teaching, so that not every decision will be informed by the pop culture.