The Class (15)

The school of hard knocks
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The problem with the genre of films about schoolteachers and their tough, unruly pupils is that you can see the endgame coming a mile off. The idealistic teacher will have won a victory by respecting the kids and bringing out the best in them, while the kids, shaken out of their apathy, will communicate their gratitude for the learning experience: the teach was really on their side after all! Everyone can go home feeling buoyed about education and the liberal dream of self-improvement. You could call it the Academy of Dead Poets and Dangerous Minds.

The Class is not one of those films, though it is about a schoolteacher, named François (François Bégaudeau), who has definite ideas about how to educate and encourage down in the blackboard jungle. Narrow-shouldered but broad-minded, this thirtysomething language teacher at a rowdy Parisian state school likes to challenge his pupils in the same way that they challenge him, to such an extent that the classroom atmosphere occasionally looks ready to explode into chaos.

His students, 14- or 15-year-olds of multi-racial origin, really behave like teenagers, not necessarily unmanageable, but petulant, moody, bored, uncooperative. François knows that he has to be on his guard even when he's trying to explain what the imperfect subjunctive is; why, his pupils ask, does he use a name like "Bill" when he chalks a sample sentence on the board – why use a "whitey" name when most of them have coloured skin?

Such arguments – about language, manners, dress, nationality – are the lifeblood of this film, whose energy and realism are down to the commitment of French director Laurent Cantet. Inspired by Bégaudeau's 2006 novel Entre les murs, Cantet and co-writer Robin Campillo developed the script via improvisational workshops with actual students from a junior high school in Paris's 20th arrondissement. All of François's staffroom colleagues are teachers there, and the parents in the film are, with one exception, those of the students in real life.

Cantet's close camera lends the long classroom scenes their abrasive, fly-on-the-desk texture, and allows the character of the students to emerge at different speeds. So pupils such as Esmeralda and Khoumba make an instant impression, the first by her insolence, the second by her refusal to look François in the eye after their spat over "respect". Others such as Wei, a Chinese pupil with no great command of French, and Arthur, the only goth in the class, come alive more gradually. It's a bit like watching an orchestra, or a large jazz band, as each member takes the spotlight for a solo or an improvised riff.

Cantet tries not to take sides between teachers and pupils, though certain scenes illustrate how adults, when pressured, can behave rather like children. The sequence where one teacher, for example, starts complaining about the price-increase in a cup of coffee looks petty indeed after the incendiary stuff happening in the classroom.

François himself proves by no means blameless. Sometimes too eager to be "down" with the kids, he forgets his position of responsibility and confronts them with language he should know better than to use. It starts when two of his female pupils, "class representatives" at a teachers' meeting, behave with abysmal rudeness; the next day in class François upbraids them as "skanks", and all hell breaks loose (the meaning of the word is hotly disputed: the girls reckon they're being called prostitutes). This in turn sets off the main business – "plot" would misrepresent its free style – of the last third, when a disruptive pupil, Souleymane (Franck Keita), reacts so fiercely against François that he storms out of the classroom and injures a fellow student on the way.

The film addresses serious delinquencies and flaws, both in the school system and, by implication, in society itself. It occurs in small instances, like that nonsense of pupils being allowed in on staff meetings; then you hear it in the way a teacher rages about the students he has been trying to teach – to hell with this underclass, is his basic line.

Nobody seems to know how to behave to one another; with the teachers it's a nervousness about their own authority, with the students it's an insecurity about their status and, in certain types, a bogus sense of their victimhood. There's an even deeper note of estrangement when Souleymane, seated next to his mother, appears before a disciplinary tribunal. His mother, a Malian, doesn't speak French, and you begin to feel something of the boy's loneliness when he's obliged to act as translator between her and his inquisitors.

Cantet has offered another subtly incisive study of work, class and family, good enough for last year's Cannes jury to award it the Palme d'Or, though perhaps not as accomplished as his earlier Human Resources (1999) or his brilliant Time Out (2001). He sees work – teaching, in this instance – as an unending series of negotiations, arguments, stand-offs, truces, and by patient direction of his actors he makes it all flow as drama. He keeps surprising us, too, right to the last. François asks the eternally combative Esmeralda what she has been reading, and after the usual lip she admits she's been rather enjoying Plato's Republic – a primer, lest we forget, in how to be a good citizen.

"Not a skank's book," she says, archly. It may not be a hugely optimistic note on which to conclude the film, but it's not without a touch of hope, either.