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Review: The Class

Learning curve, part II
By GERALD PEARY  |  February 4, 2009
3.5 3.5 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for The Class [Entre les murs]

The Class | Directed by Laurent Cantet | Written by François Bégaudeau, from his own book | With Bégaudeau | Sony Pictures Classics | French | 128 minutes

Review: Wild Child. By Gerald Peary.

There’s an analogous reserve in the teaching methodology of François Bégaudeau in The Class to those of Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard in François Truffaut’s 1970 classic, The Wild Child [L’enfant sauvage]. He’s in his fourth year as a French-language instructor of 13- and 14-year-olds, many of them immigrants, in a scraping-by public school in Paris. Bégaudeau is enormously casual and informal in his dealings with his students. Anything can be talked about in class, from soccer to homosexuality, and he’s a straight shooter, always truthful with his kids. But though he’s a liberal nice guy on the side of his minions, he rarely praises them in an overt manner. In line with the pedantry of Dr. Itard, his students — some raw and unsocialized — are asked to find their own way. Bégaudeau is not the man to take a child aside and say, “I’m really enjoying having you in my class.” His way is to banter with his pupils, to challenge what they assert, and often in an ironic, sarcastic manner. (Is it correct to note that brooding, self-dramatizing teenagers don’t appreciate irony and sarcasm?)

Bégaudeau is a real-life teacher who penned a memoir, Entre les murs (the film’s original French title), about his time in the classroom. In The Class, he superbly plays himself, and all the students, equally adept as “actors,” use their real names. The film is nominally fiction, based on lengthy improvisations with the cast, and shot in an empty school during the summer. Yet it feels so “real,” its fluid camera style like a cinéma-vérité. The Class has been compared, aptly, to Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries about institutions. Like Wiseman, Cantet captures the most telling, “truthful” moments. His classroom comes vividly, beautifully alive: this is what school is all about! And like Wiseman, he doesn’t tell us what to think.

Is Bégaudeau the best teacher who ever lived? Is he in the wrong profession? Or is he something in between, a flawed instructor with good days and bad, like his moody students? You, the filmmaking audience, get to decide.

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