‘The Class’ graduates


Laurent Cantet’s offers close-up rendering of French schoolteacher

Is there any cinematic sub-genre more abject than the tales of inspirational teachers who save their students’ lives? Despite good intentions, such films invariably wind up implying that poverty can be overcome if only a superhero teacher is present to inspire his or her students. Additionally, they often come with a dose of patronizing racism. In recent years, only a few films have managed to do anything interesting with the form. Richard Linklater’s “School of Rock” played it for laughs, while Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson” subverted the genre by depicting a crack-smoking teacher who needs his students’ help far more than they need his.

“The Class” doesn’t upend the genre or even treat it irreverently. Instead, it shrinks it to a more humane scale. Its hero, François Marin (François Bégaudeau, a teacher-turned-writer essentially playing himself), makes a modest impact on his students’ lives. He’s not without his own vices ––  albeit smoking tobacco, rather than crack, in an empty cafeteria –– and screw-ups.

The film runs 128 minutes, which gives it time to proceed slowly and let its narrative evolve gradually. Rather than “To Sir with Love,” it recalls British director Ken Loach’s brand of leftist social realism. Of the four films Laurent Cantet has made, three center around the workplace (or its absence, as in his 2001 masterpiece, “Time Out.”) Like his debut “Human Resources”, “The Class” examines the way people exercise power over each other in a charged environment.

The story is set in a Parisian junior high school, where François prepares for his fourth year of teaching French. His racially mixed classroom of 13-15-year-olds includes Malian Souleymane (Franck Keita), who tends to be a troublemaker, and Chinese-born student Wei (Wei Huang). As the year progresses, maintaining discipline in his class becomes more difficult for François, especially when he insults two girls who attended a meeting with teachers and then shared their advance knowledge of grades with other students. François’s action infuriates Souleymane, who storms out of the class and accidentally hits a girl so hard with his bag that she bleeds.

Subtitling “The Class” must have been difficult. Because the film revolves around language, the translators had to find English equivalents for the students’ mangling of French. François’ first few lessons teach the proper use of tenses, some of which, his students protest, are arcane and make one sound snobbish. Many of his students are immigrants or children of immigrants; Souleymane’s mother, who only speaks an African language, goes unsubtitled.

Language eventually gets François into trouble, as the plot turns around the question of whether he told a group of girls that they acted like skanks or outright called them skanks. While the teachers are almost all white, their classes mirror the multicultural nature of contemporary urban France. There’s a smattering of racial tension between students and teachers –– one complains that François’ examples always use “honky” names like Bill –– but lots of insults between students of color. Moroccans resent Malians, who make digs at Caribbeans.

If you’ve seen many recent art films, Cantet’s technique won’t be too surprising. However, it’s still startling that a handheld shakycam –– using three high-definition video cameras to create a slightly faded, dingy look –– and a cast of nonprofessionals can create such a convincing illusion of reality. If Cantet wanted to make a mockumentary, I’m sure he could pull it off brilliantly. Upon careful examination, the narrative is carefully laid out, but on a scene-by-scene basis, “The Class” appears to be a plotless slice of life. As storytelling, nothing much happens in its first hour, yet seeds are planted for later events.

“The Class” won the top prize at Cannes last May and went on to open last fall’s New York Film Festival. It’s a lot more modest in ambition than the kinds of films that usually reap such rewards. Its dedication to aping reality isn’t always such a plus; one could do without the faithfully rendered tedium of a teachers’ meeting about installing automatic coffee machines. The film could stand to be slightly shorter. While its successes may be fairly minor, they’re set to the height of François’ small triumphs.