In the autumn 1995, I returned home to Flint, Michigan after a summer spent as an intern in Washington, D.C.. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, who I was or what I expected of the future. All I wanted was a little bit of comfort, help finding my way. I was twenty-five and living with my parents, sitting on top of a small pile of credit card debt, and so I did what comes naturally to children; I followed in my parents’ footsteps. I signed up for work as a substitute teacher in the Flint Public Schools and, as fate would have it, ended up with a permanent position teaching Latin and English at Flint Southwestern Academy, a school I had attended part-time as a freshman in High School. The experience was more than a little unsettling; I had inverted my own life somehow, ending up as a sort of self-echo, changing roles but essentially looping backwards almost ten years with a single decision. Conditions had deteriorated but were still reasonable; security checks for the students, rigorous rules for attendance and behavior. And yet; the universal battle between academic disinterest and self-assertion raged among the kids with a little more intensity than I had remembered. All around us, Flint continued its well-documented deline, things falling apart on both sides of the school’s doors.
As for me, I found the experience more than a little obscene. I was playing a role and always breaking character, refusing to exert the type of authority I had loathed as a student and being constantly punished by the kids for my leniency. At night, I was taking classes myself, working toward my own professional certification as a teacher, but by the end of the spring, I had abandoned the entire enterprise. It takes a special type of person to be able to rise above the injustices of the classroom and remain dedicated to the cause (and it is a cause) of public education, and while I remained committed to the principles, I knew when I was beaten. By June of 1996, I was back in D.C., never to teach or to live in Flint again, escaping, fleeing the sensation of existing on both sides of a fun house mirror at once.
Laurent Cantet’s The Class, which opened the 2008 New York Film Festival, struck a deep chord in me by unambiguously capturing the ethical dialectic of teaching in a public classroom. The film marks a departure of sorts for Cantet, whose last few films (2005’s Vers Le Sud and his 2001 masterpiece Time Out) have explored the dynamics of work with well-crafted, beautifully photographed formalism. Here, Cantet returns to the hand-held immediacy of Human Resources, capturing an almost documentary feeling while at the same time showcasing some of the aesthetic beauty of his later films. The results are surprisingly alive, the back and forth of the teacher/student relationship always keeping the camera moving as the insults and lessons fly, but always in perfect focus, never once betraying anything but a mastery of the frame.* It is one of Cantet’s finest films, a sort of summing up of his technique as well as a confirmation of his status as one of the cinema’s best interpreters of the struggles and compromises of labor, the work that dominates all of our lives and so often leaves us feeling frustrated and alone.
The story belongs to François (François Bégaudeau, the author of the book on which the film is based), a middle-school language arts teacher (in this case, the French language) who has a few years experience under his belt. His classroom is a window onto the growing diversity of French society, as teenagers from diverse backgrounds (Chinese, Arabic, West African, working-class white French) populate the rows of desks that make up the class. Each day brings its compromises; François argues with the students, walking the tightrope between earning their respect and trying to communicate with them in a way that is meaningful to their lives. As the students argue and joke with one another, bringing their playground friendships and rivalries into class each day, François works to gain their trust and teach them only to have his own frustrations sabotage his progress. And yet, there is a sense that the conflict is unavoidable, with François stuck in a Catch-22 that every teacher must confront; how do you connect on the student’s developmental and emotional level without stooping to the petty intrigues and dramatic sense of personal injustice that permeates the life of teenagers? Impossible.
Laurent Cantet’s The Class
François dilemma has the elusive sense of being dismebodied, where characters act as if outside of themselves, wanting to do the right thing but doomed to fail by the system and structure of the work. This is pure Cantet; in the same way that Time Out’s Vincent is crushed between the weight of social expectations and his own recognition of the emptiness of his work, François’ humanity is to be found in Cantet and Bégadeau’s rejection of the typical movie educator as either benevolent martyr (To Sir With Love, Stand and Deliver, Lean On Me, Dead Poet’s Society, ad infinitum) or outraged avatar of society’s frustration with youth culture, primarily that of people of color (Blackboard Jungle, Dangerous Minds, ad infinitum). Instead, Bérgadeau is a deeply flawed protagonist; a man with regrets who fails to do the right thing now and again and gets away with it. The result is always compelling; a movie that knows what it means to negotiate the places inside each of us where doubt and regret mingle with hope. The Class is an unsentimental look at the day-to-day struggles of education, of the clash between naive young people and flawed adults who, despite their best intentions, remain human to the core.
*A sequence that stands out? As François demands an apology from Khoumba, her friends stand in the hall, in perfect deep focus, laughing and mocking the moment, a telltale moment that undermines François‘ authority and one that he is powerless to end.