Most New Yorkers probably don’t know the intricacies of France’s inner-city schools, thus making it hard to verify whether Laurent Cantet’s year-in-the-life look at a single Parisian classroom is truly authentic. Given that this adaptation of François Bégaudeau’s tell-all about being a teacher features the author—and the film’s cowriter—playing himself, it’s undoubtedly more accurate than your average parable of saintly professors. We can recognize, however, the sort of sassy, street-smart students that inhabit Bégaudeau’s multiculti French class, as well as the way that at-risk kids like Souleymane (Keïta) can get chewed up by bureaucracy. More importantly, we can tell when a filmmaker is carefully crafting a metaphor, with this collection of ethnically diverse youth representing the racial mix of 21st-century France—and how the collapse of what seems like a utopia says multitudes about the world outside those hallways.
The Palme d’Or winner at Cannes this year, The Class occasionally strains in its shaggy-dog aesthetic; some exchanges in the film’s first half, while off-the-cuff, play a little too easy into Cantet’s thesis. Yet during the second half’s institutional breakdown, the movie truly comes alive, casting off any To Monsieur, with Love aspirations and turning into something much more complicated, chewy and real.