Sunday, March 15, 2009

THE CLASS / ENTRE LES MURS - traversing the murky waters of liberal angst

THE CLASS is an award-winning quasi-documentary about modern race relations in France, from the writer-director behind the provocative sex-tourism drama, HEADING SOUTH. Based on the experiences of teacher, François Bégaudeau, the movie recreates the atmosphere and tensions of a year in a Parisian inner-city school, casting François and a host of real students and creating a script through extensive workshopping. 

The energy and authenticity of the film - the quality of its hand-held camera-work - the pleasure of spending two hours getting to know the kids - the purity of the concept of never leaving the class, never following the kids home - has won THE CLASS praise, and perhaps surprisingly, the Palme d'Or, beating competition from IL DIVO, THREE MONKEYS, WALTZ IN BASHIR, GOMORRA and CHANGELING. 

To my mind, it deserves praise for its energy and insight. I had fun watching the film. But is it really as subversive as everyone thinks? The standard argument seems to be that THE CLASS deserves praise for having overturned the typical Hollywood movie in which an idealistic teacher comes into a rough class and through innovative teaching techniques earns their respect. Think DANGEROUS MINDS. There's a troubled boy who disturbs class and usually ends up dropping out, despite the extenuating circumstances of trouble at home. There's the bright girl who denies her talent by getting pregnant, or dropping out. And there's the anonymous rabble of ne'er-do-wells who start off rough as houses but end up charming, considerate and thankful.

THE CLASS is no different. Yes, it may be a bit more honest about racial tensions, but you can still see the familiar genre tropes. The teacher is still an earnest liberal who transgresses the line of involvement, and defends his kids against the powers that be. A bolshy boy will still end up threatened with expulsion. And the majority of kids do end up responding to the teacher and learning something. Moreover, the film has real flaws, creating scenes that seem absurdly saccharine and break the carefully constructed feeling of authenticity. When a promising Chinese student's mother is threatened with deportation, would a guilt-laden teacher really raise two toasts to him with champagne, trumping her happiness at being pregnant? And, in the final scene, would a bolshy kid really accurately precis' Plato's Republic, thereby neatly putting the teacher who'd called her a skank in his place? This all seemed ludicrous to me.

So, I guess my response to THE CLASS was conflicted. I admire it technically, and I admire its intentions. But in reality, Laurent Cantet has created a movie as unreal and stereotypical as those awful Hollywood genre pics he so clearly wanted to subvert.

THE CLASS played Cannes 2008 and was released in France, Belgium, Italy, Israel, Greece, Poland, Portugal, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Turkey, Russia, Romania, Latvia, Sweden, the US and Norway last year. It was released in Croatia, Germany, Spain, Australia, Denmark and Finland earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK, Hong Kong, Estonia and Brazil.

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