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I went to see The Class (Cantet, Fr, 2008) a couple of weeks ago. It is based on Francois Begaudea’s 2006 novel which related his experiences of a year’s teaching in inner-city Paris. In the film, Begadeau plays himself, as do the class and staff of the school in which it is set.

I’ll start by saying that The Class is definitely the best thing I’ve seen so far this year. Admittedly its social realism is ‘right up my street’, but while Cantet and Begadeau’s pursuit of authenticity is admirable and successful, I was most struck by the manner in which the film organised its rich thematic agenda.

One of the criticisms of the kind of social realist address espoused by the likes of Ken Loach, is that politics (almost always of the left-wing variety) is rather heavy-handedly shoe-horned into characters and dramatic situations. In The Class, Francois, the most likely candidate to carry the film’s ‘messages’ is never privileged in this manner. In his engagements (often confrontations) with the class, he is, at times legitimate, even-handed and considered in his approach, while in other episodes, such as his labelling of two girls as ‘skanks’ he shows a fallible humanity and weakness, that complicates our understanding of his position.

As a foreign viewer I was also intrigued by the manner in which The Class illuminated hitherto unknown elements of French educational culture. For example, we see evidence of clearly egalitarian inter-relations amongst the teachers (they vote on important matters through private ballots and provide unequivocal support for each other in times of stress), which results in a palpable sense of communality and a removal of the kind of imposing hierarchy that seems to afflict British schools. However, again the film’s approach to these questions is not simplistic: the pitfalls of inviting student representatives to staff meetings are exposed when a particularly disruptive student has sensitive information revealed to him.

While this structural balance secures the film’s treatment of narrative, on an aesthetic level, I was struck by Cantet’s use of space. In my own research I argue extensively that social realist form invites poetic understandings of location and The Class exemplifies this. Much of the film’s action is found in the discreetly observed classroom sequences, when the narrative moves outside to the spaces of the playground the change in atmosphere encourages a more figurative understanding. For example, I was struck by the moment in which Soulemayne and his mother (shot aerially in a static frame) silently walk across the empty playground following his exclusion. In a school, such a space is usually either completely barren, or full with congregations of pupils, as such, the distanced portrait of Soulemayne and his mother, suggests a profound sense of marginalisation which amplifies the previous moments of narrative significance. This is compounded minutes later when shots of the empty classroom are contrasted with the busy playground, as teachers and pupils play each other in what appears to be an end of term football match. The unfettered jubilation and release of this portrait of school-life is underscored by our recent memory of Soulemayne’s lonely journey into adulthood.

By David Forrest

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