Cantet, known for his astute, sometimes piercing analyses of the modern workplace (Human Resources, Time Out), here turns his camera on not just the beleagured French teacher Monsieur Marin (Bégaudeau himself), his students and colleagues, but the cleaners, the workmen, and the canteen staff that keep any school functioning. We observe the parents' evenings, the staff meetings where topics from disciplinary systems to the cost of the common-room coffee are discussed (no film has better nailed the importance of caffeine and biscuits to staffroom life), the end-of-term reportwriting sessions, which - in very democratic, very French fashion - a couple of pupils, serving as representatives, get to sit in on, though here they exercise their democratic right to giggle and snigger throughout.
Cantet notes the specifics of pedagogic life - one of the students, as one of the students always seems to, has a pen that leaks everywhere - but his real interest lies in le va-et-vient, the push and pull of the classroom. Long sequences - set-pieces comparable to the pyrokinetics in any summer blockbuster - map out those sparky afternoons when everyone's keen to contribute, and the gloomy mornings when nobody's done their homework, half the class is nodding off, and the other half, resentful after a Marin bollocking, scarcely seem inclined to pick up the slack - until (and this is where Cantet and Bégaudeau excel) a spell of brilliant, engaged teaching lifts the clouds and makes the gloom go away.
There is real drama here, and it comes from the clash between two differing agendas: what M. Marin has to tell his pupils (the film spends an extraordinary length of time on the imperfect subjunctive), on one side, and on the other, the pupils' attempts to derail his lessons, or challenge Marin's state-conferred authority wherever possible. This is a mixed class, which makes race an issue: some of Marin's students find it odd their (white) teacher always uses "honky names" like Bill in his blackboard examples, rather than throwing in the odd Cherif or Khoumba, as the pupils are themselves called.
This is a minor oversight on the teacher's part, easily corrected, but the film shows how these students are often the sons and daughters of immigrants who can't read the report cards their offspring bring home, thus remain blind to their disruptive behaviour: most evident in the case of Souleymane (Franck Keita), a bolshy Malian student with some talent as a photographer, but whose aggression leaves him open to the threat of deportation. These are the battles being fought, the choices being made every day. The film has no agenda of its own beyond dramatising such battles and choices: it shows how the education system works, and where it doesn't. You're free to read the ending as downbeat - one of Marin's pupils is deemed beyond hope, and expelled, leaving him facing an uncertain future - or as an upnote, leaving Marin with twenty or so pupils to attend to in a marginally less fractious environment.
It was a brave decision on Cantet's part to cast Bégaudeau as a fictionalised version of himself (character and actor share the same first name), but it pays off magnificently: no Robin Williams figure, this, inspiring meek "captain my captain"s from the young minds around him, but an incarnation of everything we expect a modern teacher to be, a combination referee-alchemist-social worker-counsellor-stand-up comic and traffic cop, marshalling his charges' diversions and deciding which are worthwhile pursuing, which to nip in the bud, not to mention something of the pupil himself, always willing to learn - and fill out the appropriate paperwork accordingly.
Above all else, this is an individual entrusted with a hugely important (the most important?) job of work: shaping - or getting in shape - the minds of a nation. The abiding memory of Bégaudeau's performance is of the vein pulsing at his temple, both a tool, and a consequence, of the job. Give credit, too, to a cast of youngsters who perfectly embody what it is to be young today: bright and plugged in, in some cases spoiled, in others put-upon and prone to distraction. But save the most praise, in a film in which language is essential, for the English subtitlers, negotiating with supreme skill the declensions of irregular verbs and the argot of inner-city Paris. Cantet may pose the questions here, but the subtitlers' word is final.
The Class screens on Channel 4 on Friday night at 12.50am.