At the Cannes Film Festival, you can enjoy more foreign cinema in a span of 72 hours than most people do all year. And watching that much foreign cinema in that short a time, you simultaneously recognize the seemingly contradictory ideas that while other nations and cultures have their own histories, concerns, traditions and values, it is also true that, as Depeche Mode remind us, people are people. Laurent Cantet's The Class, playing in competition this year, is a terrific example of that phenomenon in action.
Chronicling a year in the life of a junior high school class in a rougher section of Paris, there's something undeniably French about the film: the cultural challenges, the uneasy-yet-unescapable mix of cultures and races in the classroom, the plot's turn on a subtler point of formal French grammar. But at the same time, these kids and their teacher (Francois Begaudeau) are going through a series of challenges and opportunities that will be familiar to anyone who's ever gone to school: The tedium of work, the charged-yet-collegial relationship between student and teacher, the subdivisions in the halls. Cantet's script is essentially an adaptation of Begaudeau's acclaimed French novel Entre les Murs, which Begaudeau wrote after his own time in a similar school. Cantet casts Begaudeau as himself, and then surrounds Begaudeau with a room full of real school kids cast as real school kids. Shot in HD with multiple cameras, The Class plunges you into the middle of preparations for the school year (A veteran runs down the class list with a newcomer, like Santa in a rush: "Nice ... Nice ... Not nice ... Nice ... She's trouble. ..." ) and moves to the actual classroom -- the chaos the goofing off, the idle challenges of authority, the idle assertions of authority. And soon, we realize that Cantet's camera, and his film, aren't going to leave the school, forming a wholly absorbing microcosm of human interaction. (And, really, when you were in high school, didn't it feel like the entire world?)
Cantet and Begaudeau's script functions as a variation on the procedural; instead of following cops or journalists or coroners, we're following a teacher and his students, through their classes and clashes, from the tedium of parent-teacher night to the tension of a disciplinary hearing. One of the best things about The Class is Begaudeau's performance (if that's the right phrase) as the teacher; he's not some plaster saint or paragon of virtue, and he makes as many missteps as he does bold forward moves. The students aren't simple caricatures, either; they're not merely randomly kicking against Begadeau's authority but also calling him out on his mistakes. This is not To Sir with Love; this is more like To Sir with Cautious Respect and, Occasionally, Out-and-Out Hostility.
In fact, Begaudeau's interactions with his students are so nuanced and smart that it doesn't feel like the heavy hand of drama when various incidents and events escalate as the film progresses; they feel natural, lived in, human. Cantet's previous films -- Heading South, Time Out, Human Resources -- all explored the same sort of territory as The Class does, with the interactions between people in relationships defined by power as their prime concern. And, put like that, it makes Canet sound like a one-topic filmmaker; instead, though, his filmography has quietly, credibly taken on heft and power as he tackles tough questions and tells fascinating stories few filmmakers in France -- or, for that matter the world -- would have the skill or courage to depict so well. The Class may very well wind up taking home a nod or two from the jury here in Cannes; rest assured, if that happens, it'll represent more than just sympathy votes for a local favorite.