François Bégaudeau, in 'The Class'

Dir. Laurent Cantet
(PG-13) ★ ★ ★ ½

In Laurent Cantet’s The Class (Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film), François Bégaudeau stars as a teacher in an inner-city middle school in Paris. Turns out, Bégaudeau also wrote the book on which it’s based, documenting his own experience as a teacher. That explains a lot. Throughout the film, I marveled at its veracity; I attended elementary school for nine years and high school for another four, and I recognized every teacher, every student, every interaction, every conflict. I went to school in the Bronx, NY, and the film takes place in France, but the specific language and setting don’t matter. Everything about it just feels so … right.

François Marin (Bégaudeau) is a teacher I would have liked. He develops a playful rapport with his students. When they question why they have to learn esoteric grammar rules, he engages them rather than dictate to them. His approach to discipline is loose, but not lax. His class occasionally gets sidetracked — a football argument here, a debate about fashion statements there — but he keeps them mostly under control. If I were a student in his class, I wouldn’t be a character in this movie; I’d be an extra sitting quietly in the back, doing his work, and staying out of trouble. But he would have nice things to say at the parent-teacher conference.

The film showcases intra-faculty relations with minute detail, and the more minute the better. Growing up, we think of authority as a monolith. It’s still jarring to recognize that our teachers are people too, so there’s a through-the-looking-glass fascination about the administrative scenes, which include a rant from a technology teacher at his wits’ end. He curses his students and announces that he will quit, but the moment passes and cooler heads prevail. Many scenes deal with bureaucracy, and the teachers’ different styles and temperaments come to the forefront. It’s a vivid conglomeration of the pragmatic and the idealistic, the strict and the nurturing, the jovial and the weary.

There comes a moment where Marin has a crucial lapse in judgment. Struggling to steer the classroom discussion back to the assignment, he loses his composure and hurls an insult at two girls that goes off like a bomb. It would be a minor schoolyard taunt between peers, but from a teacher to a student it’s nuclear. Does it make Marin an unfit teacher? No, only human. When I was in the eighth grade, and not much younger than the characters in this film, my teacher also lost her patience and said to one of my classmates, “I wonder how your mother could love you.” I remember it to this day, and it didn’t even involve me — again, I was the extra sitting quietly in the back.

The fallout is interesting. Note the reactions of his fellow faculty; I think they’ve all crossed or come close to crossing their own lines of conduct, especially that technology teacher. And note the consequences for a student, who as an indirect result faces a disciplinary hearing; Bégaudeau subtly suggests Marin’s shame — his own shame, no doubt — hanging his head silently as the hearing commences. Managing his classroom is a high-wire act for the entire year, and in a single moment of frustration so much goes to pieces.

The surprise of The Class is how engrossing it is without the benefit of a central, driving plot or even a clear theme. In 2006 the HBO drama series The Wire dissected a fictitious Baltimore high school and exposed the disease within lower-class American public schools. It remains the most potent look at the education system I’ve seen. In contrast, Cantet and Bégaudeau are content to observe without comment and do so with documentary-level realism. Life as it is, as experienced by those living it.