Nearly all of the shots of the students in the school yard are aerial ones, suggesting that they are from the teacher’s point-of-view within the classroom.
Prior to the first day of school a new teacher is warned about troublesome students.
François encourages Souleymane to express himself in a visual essay and later praises him publicly in front of the class.
Reminiscent of the confessional monologues in Heading South, The Class includes shots of a few students directly addressing the camera as they present their self-portraits.
In this parent conference François is only shown receiving the mother’s criticism — not responding verbally.
This teacher’s angry rant is shot in an extreme close-up, heightening the sense of entrapment and the audience’s discomfort.
François’s expression reveals his surprise that his students travel to the center of Paris.
While present as student representatives, Louise and Esmeralda whisper and laugh during the meeting in which the teachers discuss their students’ grades and behavior.
The students respond in disbelief that François used the term “skanks” in reference to Louise and Esmeralda.
Souleymane has “something metal” in his bag that splits open Khoumba’s eyebrow when he accidentally hits her.
François attempts to confront Louise and Esmeralda in the school yard for having told a teacher about his calling them “skanks” but lacks the authority that he has in the classroom.
Because Souleymane’s mother does not speak French, Souleymane is compelled to translate for her.
This student, who rarely speaks throughout the film, unnerves François with her revelation that she has been unable to learn because she does not understand what takes place in class.
"But I don't want to go to vocational school." Her rejection of the undesirable options available to her within global capitalism is the last line of dialogue within the classroom.
Cantet breaks with his tendency to end his films with a close-up of a character and includes this image of the empty classroom as the final shot of the film.
Finally, Cantet’s fourth film, The Class, examines relations between Third World immigrants and France through its depiction of the neoliberal promise of choice and opportunity in the educational system. Focusing almost exclusively on the interactions between a teacher and his multi-ethnic students in the classroom, it portrays the personal and cultural tensions that are a manifestation of the neoliberal restructuring of the economy where workers from countries in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia—who are deprived of opportunities in their home countries—are compelled to migrate to the West. ][open endnotes in new window]In the French system, these students only have one more year after the current one to decide between pursuing an academic or vocational route. It is this guise of having a choice that is at issue in the film. The Class illustrates how a rhetoric of “equal opportunity” serves to mask a lack thereof not only in the French educational system but in the restructured neoliberal economy.
In regards to immigration, France has attempted an universalist model of integration in order to promote “equal opportunity,” and the school system is intended to be the site of socialization where children learn the language and values of French culture. However, The Class illustrates the limitations of this model. In the film the French educational system serves to remind the students that they are generally excluded from a definition of what is French. This exclusion is frequently apparent in François’ classroom where the students are learning the French language. For example, François uses the sample sentence “Bill enjoys a succulent cheeseburger” to teach the meaning of the word “succulent” in context without considering the Eurocentrism of either “Bill” or a “cheeseburger.” One student immediately replies that “Cheeseburgers stink.” Ignoring the student’s cultural criticism, François attempts to use the student’s remark productively in helping the class understand the meaning of the word “succulent,” but then he distances himself further from them by using the unfamiliar cultural expression that his statement “should have made the penny drop.” Some of his students recognize how his examples exclude them and then suggest that instead of using “whitey names, Honkey names” that he use names such as Aissata, Fatou, and Rachid. In addition to his choice of cultural examples, François also embodies the dominance of French middle-class white culture in the grammar lessons themselves. When he attempts to teach the imperfect subjunctive, the students recognize that its use is anachronistic. When he then claims that he uses the imperfect subjunctive in conversation with friends, he further marks himself as part of the bourgeois from which they are excluded.
François also represents the educational system’s undermining of Third World immigrant students. While there are moments when François genuinely encourages and praises his students—for example, praising Souleymane’s work on his self-portrait and showing it to the entire class—François more frequently underestimates his students’ abilities, both academically and socially. During a parent-teacher conference, François cannot hide his disbelief when a mother, who criticizes the teachers for not challenging the better students, states that she’d like her son “to go to the best, to Henri IV.” Another time, François doubts Esmeralda’s claims that she read Plato’s The Republic on her own until she is able to answer questions about the book. In another parent-teacher conference, one mother defends her son against the criticism that he is an outcast. This scene includes only her reply to Francois—not his criticism nor his response to her defense—which privileges her position. The trend of being critical of students is reinforced when the faculty discusses implementing a penalty-point system, and the parent’s representative to the committee protests, “This is typical of the school’s bad habits. You always condemn the students, but never praise them.”
While the educational system underestimates the students’ abilities, it makes devastating assumptions about their futures. These expectations are most clearly—and crudely—expressed by a frustrated teacher who goes off on a rant in the teacher’s lounge:
While the other teachers would not dare voice such crude sentiments, the expectation that these students are not likely to escape their neighborhoods seems to be more widely felt. For example, when a student wants to write about frequenting Galeries Lafayette, a French department store, in her self-portrait, François cannot hide his surprise and says, “Wow, that’s four metro stops. A huge leap from your neighborhood,” suggesting that she does not belong in the center of Paris or out of her neighborhood. Because François is often seen defending students to other teachers, his prejudices should not be read solely as personal flaws but as reflective of the prejudices ingrained in the institutional educational system.
The tendency of the school to denigrate rather than advocate for students is key to the central conflict in the film—the expulsion of Souleymane for a behavioral infraction. On the day prior to the incident that leads to his expulsion, the faculty discusses whether to issue Souleymane an official warning. When the teachers’ silence condemns Souleymane, Esmeralda, one of the student representatives, speaks up on his behalf to say that his grades have improved. François then simultaneously defends and attacks Souleymane. He says that he would rather “stress his good work” than issue threats and punishments. When another teacher accuses of him of wanting “to buy social harmony,” François replies, “I don’t think a warning’s what he needs. Maybe we should say he has reached his limit because he’s limited scholastically.” When revealed in class by the two student representatives Esmeralda and Louise, this denigration devastates Souleymane. Angry at the girls for revealing this information, François then verbally attacks Esmeralda and Louise calling them “skanks.” After an angry exchange with Francois in which he defends the girls, Souleymane attempts to storm out of the classroom. When François physically blocks him and another student Carl physically restrains him, he struggles to free himself and accidentally hits a female student, Khoumba, in the face with his school bag and cuts her eyebrow. While injuring Khoumba was an accident, what is left unexamined in the school system is what provoked Souleymane in the first place.
The film illustrates how certain students are pigeonholed into the category of deviant or criminal by suggesting that Souleymane’s outcome—expulsion from the school—is predetermined. Following the incident, Khoumba inquires about whether Souleymane will be expelled, and when François replies that nothing has yet been decided, Khoumba responds, “It’s all settled anyway. Because it’s always the same.” In the following scene, François discusses the issue informally in the lounge with the other teachers. François seems to have been influenced by Khoumba—who also informed him that Souleymane would likely be sent back to his village in Mali by his father if expelled—and points out to the other teachers that in the previous year there were twelve disciplinary hearings with the result of an expulsion each time. However, François ultimately tells the principal that he does not have “much choice” but to go ahead with the disciplinary hearing. The system—and the expectations of the other faculty that maintain the system—does not allow for actual choice regarding Souleymane’s future.
While the hopes for the individual students’ futures vary, the concluding scene suggests that many of their futures are predetermined. At the end of the film on the last day of class after the students leave the classroom, a quiet black girl who goes largely unnoticed throughout the film approaches Francois’s desk and says seriously in a quiet tone that she has not learned anything all year because she does not understand what the rest of the class does. After François tries to claim that she learned as much as the other students, she looks up from the ground and says directly, “I don’t want to go to vocational school.” François tries to claim that has not been decided yet:
François’ response echoes his earlier response to Khoumba’s charge that everything had already been decided. The scene ends with the girl restating her position: “But I don’t want to.” At this moment it becomes clear not only what is at stake but that this student recognizes that there is not an actual choice for her—all she can do is state a refusal. The ending of the film illustrates the ideological role that “equal opportunity” serves in buttressing the claims of a neoliberal economy as seen through Francois’ desperate attempt to cling to the notion that the future has not been decided. At the same time it voices a blunt rejection of the false choices offered to Third World immigrants within the restructured neoliberal economy.
Viewed together as a body of work on global capitalism, Cantet’s films illustrate the false choices offered from a multi-faceted perspective. Human Resources and Time Out examine the difficulties of the flexible labor market on the traditionally privileged class of white male workers and how market liberalization is undermining their sense of self as workers. Both of these films offer refusals of what people are supposed to desire—employment and class mobility—on the terms that they are offered. Heading South and The Class illustrate the limited options for those living at the margins of global capitalism—multi-ethnic immigrants in France and people of the Third World. Both of these films criticize the tendency of the white middle class to deny and/or rationalize the injustices of the restructured neoliberal economy. In Heading South, claims of “love” shield the tourists from the realities of their acts of exploitation, and in The Class, claims of “equal opportunity” shield the teachers from their complicity with the structural inequalities in the educational system.
All of Cantet’s films have unsettling endings. They raise questions or problems that cannot be answered such as Franck asking his co-worker “Where is your place?” and the young student’s intransigent “But I don’t want to.” They also illustrate attempts at self-deception in the face of an undesirable reality through Vincent’s resignation and acceptance of a job he does not want and Brenda’s claim to “want to love them all.” Cantet’s films conclude with a lack of resolution and leave the audience in an uncomfortable silence throughout the credits. The discomfort of these film endings underscores the intolerable character of social relations under global capitalism.
Although most of Cantet’s films are specifically situated in French culture, they convey contemporary attitudes regarding work in a restructured neoliberal economy throughout the First World. While Cantet’s films are unable to provide solutions, they effectively narrativize the impasses of global capitalism. By illustrating the ways that neoliberalism has constrained our political imagination, they may also represent creative expressions of the pressing need to think beyond this paradigm.