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Lord of the 400 Blows

The lesson in “The Class”: Better to be pupil than teacher.

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We used to talk about getting through middle school as kids like the survivors of some catastrophe. Get rid of it altogether and resume education at around 14; that was our prescription looking back. The rage, fear, depression and weeping — that's just the teachers in the French drama “The Class.” They huddle together at the beginning of the film, introducing themselves at a faculty meeting where words of encouragement mix with words of warning. Middle-school years are no picnic for pupils, but as long as they don't go into education themselves they only have to go through it once. As we're shown in “The Class,” teachers must endlessly repeat this campaign against ceaseless insurrection. It isn't for the squeamish.

“The Class” is unflinching and remorseless in its depiction of public school in this era of cell phones and slack punishments. Those looks of apprehension we see on the adult faces at the beginning of the year are warranted. As interlopers, we sit in on the French language class of Mr. Marin (FranAois Begaudeau, who also wrote the source material based on his time teaching such a class). His pupils are absolute terrors, with a mix of impudence and insolence not helped by the liberal education system, which treats them as adults whether they earn it or not.

Mr. Marin tries to provide lessons on vocabulary and writing, but mostly he succeeds only in keeping his class from descending into outright chaos. Constantly having to outmaneuver hellions who want to interrupt lessons with inane digressions and purposefully obvious questions, Mr. Marin must banter, argue, cajole and occasionally shout to keep everyone in line. Most of the time he looks like someone attempting to run an air-traffic control tower and a stockyard simultaneously.

Audience members might recall classic French movies about the schoolyard, such as Francois Truffaut's “The 400 Blows” or Louis Malle's “Au Revoir Les Enfants.” But we're in different territory here. The direction is still loose in keeping with the chaotic, volatile nature of the subject, which always seems like an angry geologic fissure ready to erupt. But rather than melancholy or angst, in these tight confines the feeling is more intense claustrophobia mixed with nervous dread. Will this be the day a pupil gives in fully to her desire to explode? Will this be the day the teacher loses his cool and strikes back?

The literal translation of the French title of “The Class” is “Between the Walls,” which is not only more poetic but also more apt, because the action feels like daily life at school as it really is. Directed and co-written by Laurent Cantet, the children, parents and teachers conduct themselves as if there are no performances happening, as if the camera is hidden and these are real people, without any of the flourishes usually provided characters in dramatic art.

Audience members certainly will have a reaction. The film does not permit otherwise, replacing the standard teacher and villain of movies about public school with a classroom full of the miniature version — heartless prepubescents who want nothing more than to inflict cruelty and escape responsibility. By the end you might forget your own troubles in school and want to have the little wretches locked up for good.

This is where the movie can be a little problematic. The kids are treated as individuals with different problems. There are aggressive guys who sit at the back and cause trouble, as well as class clowns who sit up front to do so. But almost everyone is a problem. The reality is probably different depending on the classroom, but through the lens of the film we get mostly bad seeds inspiring each other to ever more extreme disorder. The one well-behaved, hardworking student is a Chinese immigrant who loves video games and math. This exception is also one of the rare instances when “The Class” turns to stereotype.

Even from its relatively small confines, and with a somewhat singular point of view, “The Class” taps into many problems facing the French, including intense competition among immigrants and the frustrations of a liberal society, all while providing a front-row seat to the familiar yet specific craziness. The film is documentary-like in its realism, and though it may in the end be only a slice of life, it leaves a lot to think about. “The Class” might not be a complete education, but it's quite a lesson. (PG-13) 129 min. HHHHH S

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