The Class, the Oscar-nominated French film about a Paris middle school, should be required viewing for anybody considering a career in teaching. The problems seen here — class time wasted on discipline, parents in denial, frustrated teachers — seem endemic. You might hope to "inspire" those one or two children a year who let you see the light flash on, but that contrasts with the sobering reality of how frustrating the work can be.
But the fact that Laurent Cantet's film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the French best picture Lumière Award makes one wonder whether the Hollywood movies on this same subject — from To Sir With Love to Dangerous Minds — lost something in translation. There is little any American filmgoer will see as new.
François Bégaudeau, a French journalist, movie critic and onetime middle school teacher, stars in the film based on his book. He plays François Marin, French teacher to 14- and 15-year-olds, a United Nations of insolent, sarcastic and hormonal moppets from everywhere French is spoken — Morocco to China to Mali and the Caribbean.
But for all their problems, the kids come off as distinct if thinly drawn personalities — difficult, insufferable at times, culturally handicapped, but human and vulnerable. The novice actors who play them are nothing if not realistically immature.
The genius of the film is its narrow focus on the classroom and the teachers' lounge. There's no Michelle Pfeiffer or Hilary Swank "personal life" scene, no moment when the caring teacher visits a child's troubled home to keep Mom from being deported to China or dad from sending an unruly son back to the village in Mali where he came from. François has the same information that we do. He has the kids for an hour a day and must deal with them according to what he learns about them in that hour.
As such, the movie plays like a two-hour French lesson. Instruction in the imperfect subjunctive is interrupted by fresh blasts of disrespect. François is insulted as "homosexual" or "bourgeois" and badgered by urchins who have no manners and no grasp of semantics — only endless grievances.
The steps François takes to connect with the kids will be recognizable to anybody who has ever seen a movie or TV show about teaching — the "self-portrait," a personal journal of revelation inspired, as always, by The Diary of Anne Frank (thank you, Freedom Writers).
But we also see the meltdowns in the teachers' lounge and the humiliating system set up to deal with problem students. François cajoles and battles unruly behavior from day one to end of term, but heaven forbid he should lose his temper back at one of them.
It's easy to see why this clicked in France, a nation dealing with its own immigration angst. The Class, for all its tolerance and good intentions, makes it safe to embrace the idea that not every child is reached by The Diary of Anne Frank, and not every child is the blameless angel Mom sees him or her to be.