Like Happy-Go-Lucky's effervescent early educator, François Bégaudeau keeps in constant contact with the world by letting off a steady stream of speech bubbles. Words are how he stays attentive and reactive to The Class: 24 nonprofessional Parisian junior-highschoolers enacting rehearsal-based, loosely scripted, anarchy-bordering scenarios.
The pedagogue François Marin (as Bégaudeau is called in Laurent Cantet’s film of Bégaudeau’s semiautobiographical novel) teaches French through banter, tangents and challenges issued clearly or ironically. Whether or not Dangerous Minds is a fair comparison was much-debated on last year’s festival circuit, but Marin’s no miracle worker. His verbal energy is simply the effort required to keep engaged within a bureaucratic-tending education system and a (dis)united nations of a student body that sees itself as the teacher’s equal, or not, to suit the circumstance.
Though they’d rather be texting, Marin makes words his students’ mode of enagement, too: with themselves, through assigned self-portraits, and with French society, through the literature and grammar of their adopted mother tongue. (A suspicious West African student calls the imperfect subjunctive “bourgeois.”) The classroom is a terrarium, socially and visually: Cantet shot simultaneously on three HD cameras, for Bégaudeau, his primary scene partner, and unexpected texture. Miscommunication spikes a late story arc, but the real political and personal drama of The Class is packed into a hundred slangy, shot-on-the-fly dialogues. (Even the shy girls in the middle rows seem richly embodied character types.) In its too-human teachers and charismatic, frequently infuriating students, The Class is an agitating film — but, since we’re talking about words and their meanings, note that “agitate” also means compel to action.