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"The Class” — (Bullz-Eye DVD Review)

August 22, 2009

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Classroom dramas are a venerable subgenre, populated by troubled students, charismatic and dedicated teachers, lots of entertaining dramatic contrivance, comic relief and heavy-duty sentiment. Often, there is a pop music soundtrack and we are usually treated to a big finish of some sort. “The Class,” which won the Palm D’or at Cannes in 2008 and was France’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar last year, has the troubled students and the hardworking teacher, but its approach is a million miles from any tale of educational triumph and tragedy you’ve ever seen.

Drawn from an autobiographical novel by punk rock singer turned highly successful writer François Bégaudeau, “The Class” is in a subgenre all its own: an educational procedural. Like many a good police procedural, the events are entirely on the job and the film takes a hard-edged, facts-only approach. Directed with a disciplined, unyielding eye-level view by Laurent Cantet (“Time Out”), we learn little of the students’ home life, except by way of rumor, and the only personal detail we learn about the teacher is that he admits to being heterosexual. And, while this in an urban, multi-ethnic school in today’s Paris, we’re a long way from some of the overcrowded human dumping grounds that sometimes pass for American inner-city schools. This is a good, if flawed, educational environment with mostly well intentioned and hardworking teachers and students. We get the impression everyone is both trying to make the best of things and simply get through the day and the school year. The tension is so great that the film often feels like one of those work-related dreams from which you wake up tired.

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