By Chris Garcia, Cox Newspapers
The magnificent French drama "The Class" submerges you in a microcosm of public-school chaos. It's a familiar place, a rambunctious din of overlapping teenage voices, scraping chairs, clacking school supplies and the lone, beleaguered instructions of a teacher trying to conduct the unruly human symphony in front of him.
The teacher is played by Francois Bégaudeau, and the film is based on "Between the Walls," the novel he wrote about his time as a junior high teacher in a rough Parisian suburb. Though Bégaudeau is not an actor, he summons his occupational experiences with crisp Method bravura, utterly embodying a man twisted by the jumbled responsibilities and quiet perils of a public-school educator.
He's superb, as are the young nonactors portraying lightly fictionalized versions of themselves. They're a multiethnic sea of faces that slowly comes into focus as distinct individuals, burgeoning personalities full of sass and hormones and popping off attitude. Director Laurent Cantet's relentlessly roving camera frames the kids tightly, in crowded close-up, expressing barely contained order. The clusters of heads sometimes look like big bunches of fruit.
The film's unvarnished authenticity, its pure verité vitality, is an enveloping force. You get lost in the bustling organic energy, the spontaneous documentary vibe that makes the movie's loose storylines blow and tangle. Although it feels and sounds unscripted, the real astonishment is that the movie actually is unscripted.
Cantet, Bégaudeau and the teenagers workshopped the material, outlining a light story arc and improvising dialogue, with a focus on forging relationships and cultivating dynamics. The result is one of those crowd-control ensemble miracles that shine in the work of Robert Altman and Mike Leigh. Yet "The Class," in its wispy plotting, swings for the fences more than any of their films. You never know where it's going.
Without a pronounced story, ordinary deeds and consequences propel the movie, which won the Palme D'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival. It's all in the interaction of student and teacher. What's going on below the banal surface creeps in subliminally. Friction arises from the push and shove, the war of wills, the shaky detentes and brushes with violence. One student's rowdy defiance is a teacher's verbal indiscretion.
High drama comes through teacher-parent meetings, disciplinary actions and administrative tribunals. Beyond the obvious social textures of class, sex and race, including timely issues facing France's swelling immigrant population, the movie's about our hobbled institutions. The profound humanity of "The Class" doesn't obscure its critique of public schooling's imperfections and limitations, realities any teacher can corroborate. But it's the humanity that stays with you, so rich and real that it both exhilarates and exhausts.