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61st Cannes Film Festival: The Class

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61st Cannes Film Festival: The Class

Now the news is out: the first  French film to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 20 years! The brilliant discovery of the Festival, a unanimous choice of the jury. The kids in the film were amazing! The press screening of THE CLASS, the film by Laurent Cantet which went on to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, was held on Saturday morning, the day before the closing of the Festival at 8:30 in the morning, The usually packed theatre – especially for American films, of course – was barely three-quarters full. Lots of people, especially from the Festival market, were already leaving Cannes . The reception from the audience was respectful, but not overwhelming. You would never have guessed that the Palme d'Or was in the making.

Laurent Cantet is a filmmaker who has carved out his reputation from films which are very sharp observations of social issues and often pit an individual against a system. In Cantet's Human Resources, the main character, Frank, is a recent graduate who starts work at a factory where his father worked, and gets emotionally trapped between his father's meek, submissive attitude and a union trying to stand up to management. In the film TIME OUT, the main character is out-of-work but has never told anyone. He pretends that he is still employed until he is driven to plot a rather fantastic revenge against his former employers. In Cantet's most recent film, HEADING SOUTH, he makes a film about ageing women who go to Haiti to seek black lovers for hire for sex and affection.

THE CLASS  covers a year in a high school in a poor section of Paris . The film is based on a book by a teacher, Francois Begaudeau, who plays himself.  Real 14 and 15-year old students portray the students in the film. Although the film is based on real incidents and is shot in a naturalistic style, it is fiction, not documentary.

From the start, it's clear that life is not easy for Francois, the teacher. The students, who are a mix of French, African,. Asian and Arab immigrant backgrounds, – are independent, outspoken, and sometimes confrontational. There is a smart  black girl named Koumba, the loud-mouthed Esmeralda, a smart Chinese immigrant, Wei, who turns out to be in France illegally, and a boy from Mali called Souleymane, around whom the crisis in the film revolves. Control of the classroom and getting to the business of teaching and learning is a struggle, but one at which Francois, the teacher, is adept. He is calm and resourceful, energetic and able to diffuse difficult situations as when Souleymane openly asks him in the classroom if he is gay.

In the background are the school's other teachers, all of whom are frustrated or resigned in their own ways. As the film progresses, the difficulties of dealing with Souleymane take central stage. The scene is set for Souleymane's eventual expulsion from school, which we now learn carries severe personal consequences. Once the process is set in motion, Francois' reticence as the sole teacher to oppose a penalty as severe as an expulsion, turns to be weak-willed and ineffective resistance against the imperious grind of the system.

The brilliance of Laurent Cantet in THE CLASS is in the naturalism and in all the performances which always ring true. There is pain and anger behind the students' attitudes. There is another world outside the film and outside the French school system into which they have been placed to learn. This world of their families, race, national origin, living conditions, immigration, otherness is more more powerful than school. Their independence, their individuality, their self-image and self-worth are determined in the hood, not in the classroom in which Francois, the teacher, valiantly struggles to make relevant and immediate the use of past subjunctive verb forms. When Francois calls the two girls a slightly derogatory name – an incident which precipitates the crisis in the film – he is unaware that the word has another, much more potent and nasty meaning in street slang.

Milos Stehlik's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or Chicago Public Radio.

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