The power of "The Class" will sneak up on you. It did that to the audience at the film's Cannes premiere, and it did it to the Sean Penn-led festival jury, which startled itself by unanimously awarding this picture the Palme d'Or. It is that surprising, and that good.
That quality of surprise was very much on the mind of French director Laurent Cantet. "We did not want our narrative thread to be obvious immediately," he's said. "We wanted the characters to develop progressively without really seeing them coming."
"The Class' " original title is "Entre les Murs" (Between the Walls), and Cantet's film doesn't stray from the confines of a Paris junior high as it details a year in the life of teacher Francois and his two dozen students in a language class where the subjects include vocabulary and the bewildering thickets of French grammar. The drama, however, comes not from the imperfect subjunctive but from the unexpected results of engaged interaction between one instructor and one class.
Francois is played by Francois Begaudeau, himself a teacher whose bestselling book on his experiences at another school was the basis of the screenplay he co-wrote with Cantet and Robin Campillo.
The students in the film are not Begaudeau's former pupils. They are instead kids from another school, Francoise Dolto Junior High in the 20th arrondissement, one of Paris' poorest and most multicultural neighborhoods, who were recruited by Cantet to take part in acting workshops that led to their roles in the film. These kids' ability to create real characters, sometimes reflecting their own personalities, sometimes not, is part of what makes "The Class" the success that it is.
The key factor in that success, as those who've seen his earlier films can attest, is director Cantet, whose interest in how work factors into individual lives is squarely in the French humanistic tradition and led to such potent films as 1999's "Human Resources" and 2001's exceptional "Time Out," about a man who spends his days pretending to be employed.
What is immediately apparent about "The Class" is how effortlessly it locates us in the authenticity of this French classroom. Shot in high-definition with three cameras, this group of 14- and 15-year-olds are both completely real and exactly observed as they fuss and dispute with each other and their teacher over issues that by their nature mix the personal, the cultural and the political.
As in any classroom, some students immediately stand out from the group. We get to know Wei (Wey Huang), loquacious despite his imperfect French; Carl (Carl Nanor), the brooding transfer student from the Caribbean; Souleymane (Franck Keita), the tough guy from Mali; Arthur the Goth (Arthur Fogel); and combat- ive Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani), always ready to give teacher Francois a hard time.
As played by Begaudeau, Francois is not at all the self-consciously heroic teacher we may have been expecting. Intense, edgy, not necessarily likable, given to saying things like "Austria could vanish, no one would notice," he is not afraid to push back hard when his students push at him. As a result, his class can seem barely under control as his sharp, rambunctious students challenge him at every turn.
Though his students don't always understand this, Francois is passionately on their side, yet his teaching style runs risks. There is a danger of getting on too much of an even footing with your students and little room for recovery if you lose your balance.
The reality of Francois' classroom is so intense that it holds our interest even while the film's dramatic focus is building so quietly under the surface that we don't notice it at first. Then, when you least expect it, the drama is there and suddenly things are deadly serious for some of these students, a chain of events that takes us and them by surprise, and we see how fragile the opportunity for learning is, and how inflexible an education system can be when things threaten to spiral out of control.
"What I am interested in is individuals facing a complex world," director Cantet said at his Cannes news conference. "I take an interest in what's happening around me." It's an interest, "The Class" proves once again, that can lead to unforgettable cinema.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for language
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
Playing: In limited release