In what is becoming a habit of parenthood, I caught Laurent Cantet’s wildly acclaimed The Class this weekend, several months after it came out. I thought as a dramatic exercise it was often stunning, but, still, it left me a little confused. The Class (Entre les Murs) is basically a year in the class of Francois, teacher of French to a multicultural batch of teenagers. I think the film’s take on the Francois’ teaching approach is one of general approval – his faculty antagonists are clearly not as sympathethically portrayed – although this approach, it seems obvious to me, is the real culprit in the mini-tragedy that drives the second half of the film. This is my one problem with the film, that it focuses on heroic efforts to reach hard-to-reach students undertaken by a really terrible teacher. Francois uses a toxic combination of new and old educational models. His affective stance towards his students is the traditional, antagonistic one immortalized in Truffaut’s 400 Blows. He badgers sarcastically. He zeroes in on uncertainty and picks at it. He tries to expose weakness. But his method comes from the more newfangled model of the “child-centered” classroom. (I have no idea how far this thinking has infiltrated French educational practice, but it has definitely infiltrated Cantet’s film.) He luridly prods students to open up about their feelings on such topics as “shame” (i.e. tell us what you’re ashamed of; come on, tell us). He erases the status difference between teacher and student, rarely asserting authority but lowering himself to bicker over small provocations, even once claiming betrayal by a pair of girl students who have talked behind his back, by confronting them in a courtyard crowded with other students, who gather round – it’s like he’s just one of the kids, a typical teenager, insecure and overwrought, a bit of a drama queen. His overriding classroom goal seems not to teach his students but rather to provoke them and keep them talking. He’s one part therapist, one part dickish older brother. His ministrations are, thus, not just ineffectual but creepy. The Class is in many ways a remarkable film, but as it went on I found myself thinking, “I think I understand Foucault a little better now.”
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