Lesson in Session – The ClassMay 11, 2009
Shooting from a multiple camera perspective, or MCP, can be quite a power trip. I recently experienced it on a short film shoot. Armed with two Sony PD-150s, the cinematographer went wild, with almost every cut shot from that point on utilising a second camera. In one way, it saved time on some of the set ups (though it can double it on others), since we can shoot the same conversation from two different angles at the same time (duh!). At the same time, however, very few of the shots were properly planned, and while some of the spontaneous ones were rather well done, even when the second camera wasn’t really needed, it was pressed into service regardless. “Just shoot anything,” was the cinematographer’s eventual instruction, sounding more like a wartime direction rather than a filmmaking one.
Nevertheless, the sense of chaos that permeated was one that resulted from a lack of planning, a lack of coherence between the shots. After all, if a camera is all we need to transplant our vision…then two cameras will result in a greater vision, or a greater amount of vision. In other words, a fair amount of chaos.
That was the only word that came to mind when I helped out on the production (I did the slate), and that was the word that came to mind when it comes to Laurent Cantet’s Cannes-award winner ‘The Class’. I do not mean that in a bad way, but positively on two different levels.
‘The Class’, as the title might suggest, follows a young teacher’s journey for a whole semester as he teaches at a school in a tough Parisian neighborhood. He is Francois Marin (Franois Begaudeau), an honest and sincere teacher who tries hard to make his students reach for higher goals. Unfortunately for him, most of his students have the tendency to press self-destruct buttons, preferring to make smart remarks rather than contribute positively. Things come to a head when one of his students encounters big problems at home as well as at school, and his dedication to educating his students, as well as his ability to negotiate the cultural minefield, were put to the test.
And that’s pretty much all that she wrote in the synopsis department. Of course, other versions might offer more details, but quite frankly, this is a simple movie with a simple basis that is effectively coordinated. We come back, then, to the key word: chaos. Or, to be more specific, controlled chaos. On one level, the style of the shoot is such that multiple cameras were used, having cameras fixed on the main characters through the movie, and cutting the ensuing dialogues. Controlled chaos, because there is little room here for Cantet to play around with (almost literally: it was shot mainly on location). He gets right to the point, with incredibly smart dialogue edited tightly, ensuring that the energy, the intimacy of the moment, is never lost. You get this feeling as you watch the film; the clever conversations between Francois and his students had me bowled over not just by the content, but also by the delivery (and reactions). Thus, it was chaotic…but it was controlled.
At the same time, the word ‘chaos’ can also apply to what was being shown on screen. Here, we basically follow a whole class for a whole academic year. Remember what school was like way back when? Remember how chaotic it could be? This is what the film puts on the screen. I have never imagined a teacher’s job to be an easy one; I’ve teaching aspirations myself, at a later stage of my life, but even then it is merely restricted to college and university level students. I myself wasn’t a nice little angel (though there were others who were more devilish, and thus made me look good in comparison), and I’d shudder to think of the sort of chaos that I’d have to deal with every single day of the week.
We get a sense of this early on, in the film, when one of Francois’s colleagues bursts into the room, practically in tears, and shouted his head off at the rest of the teachers. The needling, prickly remarks aimed at him by his students have slowly eroded his confidence, and the little space he has in which to maneuver placed an even bigger burden on his shoulders. “I can’t take this anymore,” he sobbed, “I just can’t deal with them.”
Of course, our hero, our knight in shining armour that is Francois, doesn’t quite fall to the same level, though there were more than one time in which he must have been tempted to. During some of the heated debates and discussions within the classroom, I myself would have been quite tempted to deliver an almighty slap on some of the students (great acting!). All of this is not without meaning, however; the debates shifts and flows much like a river sways its way from side to side. Debates about why the immigrants have to learn French, while the reverse isn’t necessarily true, lends a sense of metaphoric reality that the film, the class, serves as a mirror to society. Considering the director’s body of work, which I admittedly haven’t seen, it is not something that surprises me. It is also the balance that struck me; at times, I wonder whether Francois is the one teaching his class, or vice-versa.
A big part of that is due to the process of the filmmaking itself. The director and actor (a real-life teacher) spent a whole year at the school where they would shoot, initially looking for actors, but eventually, after having cast everyone in the appropriate roles, spent every Wednesday conducting workshops, where ideas would be fleshed out and lines would be tested. The actors, both young and old, are all encouraged to have an active participation in the sessions, and what came out of this potentially chaotic way of working is a real work of controlled, yet seemingly spontaneous art. Evidence, if anything, that practice makes real perfect.
Thus, just like the cameras empowered the cinematographer of the aforementioned short film, the experience of making this film must have been equally powerful. In going about it the way he did, Cantet empowered the young actors to reach for a higher goal, to imbue their characters with their own spirits. It makes for powerful and engaging acting from everyone. The camerawork and the editing, while reminiscent of non-fiction genres, adds, rather than detracts, from the film.
Power, in addition to chaos, becomes just as key a word: all of this lends to a powerful experience in watching the film as well. It is an experience that is well worth learning.
Fikri is wondering how to get his hands on the rest of Laurent Cantet’s films.