Realism is the mode du jour of international art cinema, so it's fitting that the New York Film Festival opens with Laurent Cantet's Palme d'Or winner, "The Class," an exercise in naturalist mise-en-scene, improvisatory nonprofessional acting, and immediate handheld cinematography. These tropes should by now be familiar to audiences attending a festival that will also feature works by likeminded filmmakers such as Jia Zhangke and Kelly Reichardt (and hosted Hou Hsaio-hsien's and Lee Chang-dong's similar films last year). But Cantet's film impresses if even for the feat of credibly portraying the atmosphere of a classroom full of fourteen-year-old urban Parisians -- with all of the adolescent storm and stress that such a petri dish would necessarily create.
What is most remarkable -- even a little confounding -- about Cantet's film is Francois Begaudeau, who not only wrote the memoir-novel upon which the film is based and co-wrote the script but also stars. With his fashion sense and low-key good looks, Begaudeau could easily be mistaken for any number of French leading men. But in his role as middle-school teacher Francois, he seamlessly portrays a fictionalized version of himself. His performance is therefore notable because it is so unnoticeable, and fully in keeping with the film's tone without the slightest hint of amateurism.
To greater or lesser extents, this holds true for the rest of the cast as well: Francois's two dozen students and handful of co-workers give memorable verite performances of varying sizes, with Begaudeau's turn -- his innumerable frustrations and his occasional triumphs -- as the film's center. The whole of "The Class" (as its French title, "Entre les murs," suggests) takes place within the walls of the school itself, and large swatches of its duration are devoted to Francois's pedagogy. Itself a sustained performance, Francois's teaching resembles a kind of Socratic method of questioning -- sometimes prim, sometimes jocular, and sometimes utterly exasperated. In turn, the students prod, retort, act out, fume, or relent, perpetually pushing the boundaries of what's acceptable by swearing or refusing Francois's instructions or asking if he's gay (he isn't, or so he tells them).
By limiting his film's focus to the classroom itself, excluding the students' home lives from our point of view but for a few crucial encounters with parents, Cantet's film lulls the spectator into the rhythms of the everyday reality of school, belying a very carefully coordinated narrative structure that only becomes apparent in its final act. In this way, most of "The Class" resembles no film so much as Frederick Wiseman's two "High School" films (especially the more open-ended, less polemical 1994 film), even if Cantet himself largely denies his project's connection to documentary. To be sure, his film is expertly staged, choreographing its largely young, nonprofessional cast into very complex scenarios, but then a lot of documentary -- and more than a little reality television -- functions at least partly in the same way. But by sticking close to Francois's mercurial teacher-act, partly prickly, partly amiable, Cantet's film renders the erratic whims of a roomful of teenagers in a manner that is as gripping in its drama as its image of reality is patient and vivid.
[Leo Goldsmith is Reverse Shot staff writer, as well as an editor at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.]