Based on a book by the film's star, Francois Begadeau, about his own experiences as a teacher, the film concentrates on Francois' French class in a high school in a tough suburb of Paris.
But director Laurence Cantet focuses the film even further, heightening the documentary feel of the story. We focus on one group of students in one of Francois' classes. These students are a melting pot of ethnicities, all trying to learn in the same environment even though they are clearly at different levels. So Francois' job involves just trying to communicate with and maintain discipline with his students. Interestingly, each of the actors plays an eponymous student. I don't a lot about the background or history of the story behind this film, but this fact leads me to believe that each actor is playing a fictionalized version of himself or herself.
As the school year begins, Francois arrives at his school to find char women cleaning the rooms. He begins to prepare and then meets with the other teachers. They go around the group, introducing themselves to each other, identifying the new teachers and the department chairs, offering welcome and help coping with the school year. Later, we see a teacher pointing out the good and bad students to a newbie, helping them sort out who will be trouble. This is the first moment when I really connected with the story and felt the film was going to show us an in-depth look at the French education system. Before this moment, everything looks and feels too perfect, too clean, too idyllic and well prepared. Early on, you get the feeling we should prepare for a fairy tale or a romanticized tale of an educator, ala "Dead Poet's Society" or "Stand and Deliver". When one teacher begins rolling down the class list, telling the new teacher "He'll be trouble. He's OK. Trouble" and then begins going down the whole list, with one word summaries of each, you realize this school is probably a lot more like the schools we are familiar with. When this moment happens, you have hope this film will dig deeper.
And it does. The story concentrates on Francois' interactions with the students in one of his classes. We learn he had most of these students the previous year. He has a history with them and this leads him to have a familiarity of how they will act up, how they will test him. He asks one black girl to read a passage from "The Diary of Anne Frank". She protests and accuses him of picking on her, she doesn't want to read, why can't he pick someone else. When he realizes the student, who provides the standard for many of the other girls in the class, has just become unreasonably unruly, he confronts her. "We got along well last year, what happened?" When she looks down, we know she realizes she is giving him a hard time. But she's a teenager and it is difficult to express her feelings.
As the school year progresses, we see a few brief moments with the other teachers, but the main focus of the story is Francois and his attempts to try to teach his students. And throughout the film, Begadeau is able to portray Francois, showing us his conflict. He is a young man, I would guess mid thirties, young enough to still be a little idealistic, but also a teacher long enough to realize he won't be able to reach very many of his students, he won’t be able to provide them with the education they so desperately need. As he interacts with his students, we get a sense of how quickly each of these emotions plays through each interaction with each student. When a student announces there is a rumor floating around that he is gay, he playfully responds by trying to teach them some French, making the student restate the accusation using proper grammar. Later, his frustration gets the better of him and he lashes out at some of the students. Later still, another student answers one of his questions indicating a deep knowledge and understanding of the topic he is talking about. These are the types of students he longs for and you can see the delight register on his face when he realizes this student is actually paying attention, actually trying to learn amid all of the disruptive behavior of the other kids.
An extended subplot concerns one of Francois' students, an African kid whose parents don't speak French at home and wear the dress traditional to their country. In a moment of frustration, Francois gets in an argument with two of the girls who are the most disruptive. At the same time, the young man, who has been problematic, gets fed up and ends up accidentally injuring another girl. But because of his history at the school, Francois and his superiors decide to hold an administrative meeting to decide whether he should be expelled. As all of the preparations for this meeting take place (two representatives of the student body must be in attendance and two representatives of the parents must also be in attendance), Francois begins to doubt if this is the right path. What will it accomplish? The student's mom speaks no French and her son must translate everything for her. She doesn't even believe her son is a troublemaker; he does his work, he never misses school. Francois tries to convince her this isn't true. But she knows what she sees. Then during the meeting, we see how serious the school faculty takes this matter. It is almost a court trial, with people making statements, others asking questions and ultimately the student and his mom leave the room while they vote.
These moments help to illustrate Francois' growing frustration with the situation. On the one hand, expelling his student will accomplish nothing. He will still have troublemakers in his class. In fact, it will probably only hurt the student. But on the other hand, if they don't enforce the rules can the situation get anything but worse? So he feels a reluctance to follow the protocol, to continue with the proceedings.
There is a moment about midway through the film when the new teacher, the one receiving advice from a veteran about who will be good students and who will be bad, rushes into the teacher's lounge, infuriated. "They're nothing but animals", he shouts. While this moment is a little 'on the cuff', it is a helpful illustration. We can completely imagine Francois being in this same mind frame a few years ago. But now that he has a few more years of experience under his belt, he realizes he has to simply do the best he can.
"The Class" is an interesting, almost Cinema Verite look at one teacher's attempts to teach his students. It is a very good, very well made film. And the parallels to the American school system are almost shocking.