The lines between documentary and drama are often blurred, as in “The Class,” which has young Parisians playing fictional versions of themselves. [Source: NYT/Sony Pictures Classics]
The young bodies crowding “The Class,” an artful, intelligent movie about modern French identity and the attempt to transform those bodies into citizens through talk, talk, talk, come in all sizes, shapes and colors. With their cellphones and pouts, these bored, restless junior high students look pretty much like the fidgety progeny of Anytown, U.S.A. One difference being that these African, Arab and Asian Parisians live in a country that insists its citizens have only one cultural identity, even if it is an identity— as France’s smoldering suburbs vividly suggest — many of these same young people don’t feel welcome to share.
“The Class” isn’t directly about civil unrest and French identity as a republican ideal, though these issues run through it like a powerful current, keeping the children and adults (and the filmmaking) on edge. Rather, the director, Laurent Cantet — using a small team and three high-definition video cameras — keeps a steady eye on the children, these anxious, maddening little people flailing and sometimes stalling on the entryway to adulthood. He shows them giggling, arguing, boldly and shyly answering questions. He marks their victories and failures and, with brutal calm, shares some of the other lessons schoolchildren learn on their way to the office, factory, shop, unemployment line and perhaps even prison: sit down, raise your hand, stand up, get in line, keep quiet.
That’s tough stuff, but “The Class” slides its points in at an angle, letting them emerge from the children’s chatter instead of hanging its politics around these tender necks like placards. For audiences accustomed to big-screen pedagogical imperatives soaked in guilt and deep-fried in piety, this makes for an exotic change (though the HBO show “The Wire” covered similar ground) and might sound perilously dry. But “The Class,” which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May and opens the New York Film Festival on Friday night, is as much an emotional experience as a head trip. Mr. Cantet would prefer you to think (he is a French filmmaker, after all), but he’s enough of an entertainer to milk an occasional tear.
French director Laurent Cantet surrounded by students holding the Palme d’Or award for their film “The Class” in Cannes on Sunday. [Photo by Eric Gaillard/Reuters/IHT]