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Class Consciousness

Ed. Note: The 46th New York Film Festival opens tonight at Avery Fisher Hall, but for the last two weeks, esteemed filmmaker and Reeler operative John Magary has been haunting the Walter Reade Theater, seeing what there is to see. He'll be reporting back here periodically with his findings in the weeks ahead, supplemented by observations from yours truly and perhaps a few other special guests. Please welcome him, and many thanks as always for reading. -- STV

By John Magary

Fall 2008. Coney Island… gone. Yankee Stadium… gone. Lincoln Center… scaffolded. Pinkberry… boundless! Wall Street… different. Take a moment before it all starts, you Gotham stalwarts disillusioned by financial collapse and condo metastasis, to look skyward, or UWS-ward, and thank your lucky stars that the New York Film Festival is still here, pretty much the same as it ever was. It’s still small, still gives no awards and appoints actual working critics (!) to its selection committee. With its bones thrown to the black-tie opera set, it’s skewed a little fancy. And it is, after 46 years, still the very best. For the New York Film Festival gives what all the best festivals give: Reverence.

Star pupils: A scene from Laurent Cantet's The Class, the opening-night selection of the 46th New York Film Festival (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

That said, opening night films often feel engineered to lightly warm the blood, halting tastefully before boil. After all, it’s the festival’s most gala-rrific night, when the Film Society must earn the “society” in its name, and the choice usually is to preen rather than cluck. Under the gussied up watch of patrons and pretties, we are offered, in Avery Fisher Hall’s creamy packaging, a formally cautious, high-toned, perfectly pleasing bit of cinema, usually with distribution firmly in place. We get The Queen. We get Wes Anderson. We get something probably not Asian. Out of necessity, it’s a night for them. And I wasn’t quite ecstatic to hear that Laurent Cantet’s The Class would be opening the festival this year.

Cantet’s Time Out (2001) stands as a delicately haunting — and, egad, timely — distillation of one of modern man’s greatest fears: losing work. As a scenarist, Cantet is fascinated with work, with its everyday satisfactions and indignities, the dirty white noise buzzing through a third of our day. He’s an unfussy, unsentimental, tremendously empathetic, unabashedly liberal filmmaker. And yet, even with the Palme d’Or, The Class sounds like one of those movies: hopelessly optimistic/brave guy gives kidz in the city some learnin'. The cheese-o-meter pitfall potential is enormous. And Web-dependent nerd that I am, I couldn’t shake this comment by Kent Jones on Dave Kehr’s blog last May:

Allow me to chime in from Cannes, and say that I found the Cantet to be an overrated film (if you’ve seen it, it’s impossible to avoid a comparison with the fourth season of The Wire, which is not flattering to the Cantet). I certainly didn’t think it was a bad film, but it seemed like small potatoes compared with Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale or Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman. However, I can see how much [the Palme d’Or] will mean to French audiences, and it is destined to be a huge hit when it opens here.

This is the same Kent Jones who makes up a fifth of the Festival’s selection committee. So my hopes for the film were, yeah, more or less flaccid.

Glad to report, then, that I’m a great deal happier with the film than Kent Jones. (I also echo his raptures for Martel and Desplechin, whose films this go-around are excellent, but more on that later). To date, I’ve gotten through roughly 71 percent of the Festival’s main slate, and no film has affected me quite so deeply. Its French title Entre les murs (“Between the Walls”) speaks to the film’s deceptively humble scope: We stay in the workplace, an ethnically mixed middle school in Paris’s 20th arrondissement – a French language class, in particular. François (François Bégaudeau, a teacher and former Cahiers du cinema contributor who wrote the semi-fictionalized book on which the film is based) teaches some 25 kids, loud and funny, squirming in the frame, almost supernaturally resistant. He goes to meetings. He talks to parents. He tangles with taunts and titters.

Heads of The Class: (L-R) Laurent Cantet and François Bégaudeau flanked by their students at Cannes, May 24, 2008 (Photo: EPA)

This might be familiar wrapping, yet it’s also, to my mind, Cantet’s most ambitious work. Like Time Out and Human Resources, this is a job distillation, but consider the vastness of our shared education: the tricks of language, the unruly empiricism, the thorny limits of discipline and honesty. Anchored by Bégaudeau’s careful improvisations (while nothing was scripted, Cantet carefully guided the teacher’s interactions with one eye cast to a loose narrative), the project of the film is public learning itself, in all its sweaty complications. One boy, giggling with poorly veiled curiosity, his chair teetering against the back wall, asks François publicly if the rumors of his homosexuality are true. François’s response — and he stretches the proceedings out with a distinctly French playfulness, even though in the end the answer is no — takes on a surprising level of peril. Not so much because he risks the students’ scorn, or because the discussion itself is a gateway to weighty bromides about intolerance, but because the question’s very engagement might crack the class open to yet another wave of outside interference. As the class’s frustrating and hilarious daily tussles suggest, learning is often more about shutting out than taking in. When all is said and done, there’s only one right way to conjugate “learn.”

Cantet and Bégaudeau workshopped with the kids every Wednesday afternoon for eight months, and what’s captured on screen is a level of adolescent intimacy that’s extraordinary, even uncanny, all the more remarkable because the classroom itself is so terribly public. The remarkable performances are also a product of working methods: The Class stands as a prime example of what HD can do so well: every interaction captured with three cameras, cut plainly to eye-rolls and gulps, a winnowing process more or less prohibitively expensive to produce with 35mm film. It’s gamesmanship, contentious pedagogical challenges, constant mini-starburst grabs for attention. The kids push and push, and François must decide when to take the bait, when to plow ahead. At one point an angry slip of the tongue from François — a slip that would get you booted before lunch period in the States — threatens to blow the project apart. Once again, the anxious students’ preferred path — to argue themselves out of a lesson, to run rampant over a minefield of misspeaking — ensures that this world will stay less than perfectly Platonic.

Which is not to say that there isn’t a huge heart here. An hour into the film, when a troubling narrative drifts in, the film almost devours itself with a squirmy question: When is it okay to let them go? Cantet and Bégaudeau, with an honest nod to Socrates, touchingly let the question hang.

Mind you, this class shall continue, as we check in this weekend with the NYFF’s esteemed headmaster, Richard Peña. Try not to be late, OK?

Posted at September 26, 2008 12:48 AM

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