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Mad Hot Classroom

The Class (2008)

Pierre Milon/Sony Pictures Classics

"Palme d’or" winner at the Cannes Film Festival and opener of the New York Film Festival, Laurent Cantet’s “The Class” is indeed powerful stuff. The film chronicles one year in a junior high school in an ethnically diverse arrondissement of Paris. François Bégaudeau, whose autobiographical book “Entre les murs” serves as the basis of the film, leads a cast of non-professional actors who play students and teachers. Here’s a real inspirational story without the kind of predictable “Dead Poets Society”-esque life-changing conclusion, about one French teacher attempting to instill something meaningful into a classroom full of overgrown infants who are rowdy, rebellious and combative. What most critics probably aren’t telling you about in their expectedly lavish praises of the film is its stereotypical and downright patronizing portrayal of race and ethnicity.

Since there are so many students in the classroom setting here, very few characters emerge with full-fledged narratives. What “The Class” offers instead is easily recognizable stereotypes such as the overachiever, the artistic daydreamer and the troublemakers. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and the seemingly ADHD-plagued special-ed. types become the film’s focal point. Startlingly, “The Class” gratuitously pegs these various roles within this microcosm to demeaning racial profiles. Needless to say, the African immigrants are a menace to their little society.

Mr. Cantet’s pseudo-documentary approach and his use of non-professional actors are especially troubling. The illusion of reality tends to lull audience members into complacency and subtly invites them to subscribe to these racial stereotypes. If there’s ever going to be a Hollywood replica of the film, the NAACP may be crying foul and with good reason. But since the French dialogue and English subtitles allow American viewers a comfortable distance, most of us probably won’t be actively thinking about how this story relates to our own urban public schools. In the end, Mr. Bégaudeau is the most sympathetic character by virtue of being the protagonist, even though the story also exposes his personal failings. Indeed, the film ends up not saying much at all about the students’ coming-of-age experiences in the school.

Ultimately, “The Class” offers an affluent, urbane white audience a gentle pat on the shoulder for being liberal and worldly enough to appreciate a film as cosmopolitan as this. This logic may seem absurd, but it certainly propelled the pedestrian “Crash” to Oscar Best Picture status. But now that xenophobia is such a huge issue in France, the treatment of race in “The Class” only perpetuates the problem instead of prompting resolution.


Opens on Dec. 21 in New York and on Feb. 6, 2009 in Britain.

Directed by Laurent Cantet; written (in French, with English subtitles) by Mr. Cantet, François Bégaudeau and Robin Campillo, based on the novel “Entre les murs” (“Between the Walls”) by Mr. Bégaudeau; directors of photography, Pierre Milon, Catherine Pujol and Georgi Lazarevski; edited by Ms. Campillo and Stéphanie Léger; produced by Carole Scotta, Caroline Benjo, Barbara Letellier and Simon Arnal; released by Sony Pictures Classics (United States) and Artificial Eye (Britain). Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: François Bégaudeau (François), Wei Huang (Wei), Esméralda Ouertani (Sandra) and Franck Keïta (Souleymane).


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