The Class

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:14

    The Class

    Directed by Laurent Cantet

    Running Time: 128 min.

    Last week I referred to the black kid in Doubt as, “That most condescending of all social constructs: a minority.” But this week that construction describes an entire movie, the Cannes Film Festival Award–winning The Class. Set in a modern Parisian public school, The Class is based on a memoir by François Bégaudeau recounting one school year teaching inner-city immigrant youth. Bégaudeau portrays himself, but director Laurent Cantet is responsible for the film’s reality-TV style, employing non-professional teens to reenact the student body of minorities.

    It’s all designed to flatter the middle-class art-film audience’s patronizing attitude toward the Third World.These kids’ claim on the conscience of the bourgeois West invokes post-9/11 guilt—a piety so strong that it fools many liberals into mistaking their condescension for empathy. Bégaudeau struggles to civilize these beasts—beurs from the banlieues—whose natural teenage rebellion threatens to tear down Western heritage. Hostile to national language and tradition, they taunt Bégaudeau’s grammar and his sexuality.Yet he endures. Cantet lost his bearings with Heading South, an overwrought Marxist analysis of imperialism through the menopausal cravings of white women on the loose in the Caribbean. His sympathies are still berserk— and purely didactic—in every scene that excuses the second-generation students’ resistance to cultural orientation. Cantet never critiques hip-hop youth for swallowing “radical” cant as easily as they get Muslim tattoos or don Detroit Pistons jerseys.

    (Sports rivalry stirs vicious classroom antagonisms.) The dangers inherent in intellectual vacillation show in Cantet’s faculty lounge scenes where teachers—typically bourgeois— over-discuss classroom problems.The single outburst of angered authority is patronized.

    The Class is so densely racist it justifies Bégaudeau nearly losing his job because students protest his angry utterance of “skank” when debating a female student. Bégaudeau brightens when his most hostile pupil says she’s just read Plato’s The Republic. Plainly, she’s learned nothing from it, yet Cantet accepts this apple-polishing as victory.

    Americans have no business falling for this nonsense. Our school system fails due to class and economic issues that Cantet’s racism ignores.Yet critics who ignored the education drama Akeelah and the Bee extol Cantet’s bald white-man’s-burden metaphor. Our imperfect democracy has surpassed this French liberal romanticism at least since Robert Mulligan’s 1967 film Up the Down Staircase. When Sandy Dennis’ suburban white teacher coped with the turmoil of an urban high school, a veteran casually advised, “You can’t give up, and you can’t give them up.They’ve been given up already.We’re their last chance. Or maybe they’re our last chance.” Cantet doesn’t quite know how to say that. In his conceit, Cantet essentially pities these minorities as colonial brats. He delimits their humanity, and that’s the film’s ultimate blackboard bungle.