Director Laurent Cantet; Release date: out now
The Class is about a class of teenage students and their teacher in a French school. Through the interaction of the students with their teacher, Francois Marin, the film explores many aspects of the French education system.
We learn early on that students feel they are not learning anything that is relevant to them. In their French language lesson a student questions why they need to learn formal grammar: "It is the way people spoke in the 12th century." We can see how the school reduces knowledge into dry and testable "facts" when a teacher describes himself as someone who teaches "multiplication tables, and sometimes mathematics". We watch the disaffection of the students as they sit through an entire lesson on how to conjugate French verbs.
The film also offers a tiny glimpse of how education could be different. The students are asked to write about themselves and create self-portraits using computers. We find out about their lives, their families, their likes and dislikes, and their fears and hopes. A new student, expelled from his previous school, reads aloud: "I hate visiting my brother in jail...I hate politicians...the war on Iraq...racists." Suleyman, a student who seems not interested in school, becomes proud of his self-portrait when it is placed on the wall for others to read.
However, the glimpse of a different, student-centred type of education is only brief. I had the impression that Marin was supposed to be someone who pushed the boundaries of the French education system and attempted to engage with the students. If this was the way in which the director intended to portray Marin, it was a complete failure. In fact, Marin lets his students down on many occasions and treats many of them with little regard at all. He appears to have absolutely no pedagogic skills whatsoever and his lessons are terrible. I don't know whether his teaching style is common in France, but if it is this is a depressing thought.
Another disappointing aspect of the film was that many of the relationships between the teacher and his students are not explored fully. One student who Marin mistreats in class writes him a letter telling him that he has no respect for the student at all and that she will therefore no longer engage with any aspect of his lessons. The letter is damning and you can empathise with this student instantly. However, the next time you see her, she is back in class, smiling and happy as though nothing had ever happened. Similarly, we never find out how Marin feels about having this letter written to him.
The Class is definitely worth going to see. The dialogue between the students and Marin is fantastic and the actors playing the students are excellent. In a time when there is so much demonisation of young people it is refreshing to see a film that treats them with respect and attempts to tell the story from their side. However, there are many aspects of it which are unbelievable and this can make it a frustrating film to watch.