Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Class, What Takes Place Between Parisian Classroom Walls

Although the English title of Laurent Cantet’s seventh film The Class explicates the film’s subject, a 9th grade school class, it lacks the greater symbolism of the original title Entre les Murs (literally “between the walls” in English.) This spatial reference, lost in translation, indicates the importance of the actual classroom that houses all the frustration and wonder of the fourteen year-olds who study French with Mr. Bégaudeau. (In fact, only three scenes of the film take place outside the classroom and they are still within the confines of the high school.) In this way the film maintains its focus on the school environment and how the structure affects the teens and their teachers, and only rarely alludes to what might occur outside of school walls.
If you did not know, you would probably believe that The Class was a documentary. The students are expertly photographed, usually with a hand-held camera. But unlike Rachel’s Getting Married which desperately attempted realism with a whip-cam and shaky shooting, the camera floats and effortlessly focuses on acne-faced, braces-wearing, rebellious teens who appear so typically proud and confused, that the line between fiction and documentary disappears. Though neo-realist films have often cast non-professional actors, an entire cast of fourteen year-old non-professionals playing themselves in high school, trumps any realism an older person off the street might offer. In addition, the principal teacher is played by the film’s screenwriter, a real teacher who taught in Paris and penned a best selling novel about the experience before making it into a script. So François Bégaudeau, like most of his students, shares his name with his character, and performs with all the honesty this suggests.
It is astonishing that one feature film about a high school class in Paris can address so many of France’s contemporary problems in less than two hours; the French identity struggles to be defined by kids whose relationship to France is complicated by immigration, community, and a non-ethnic authority figure. Although Mr. Bégaudeau’s class is relaxed, violence ensues when one student refuses to use the polite address of “vous” with his teacher, demonstrating the importance of language in maintaining order. Of course language is central in a French class – Mr. Bégaudeau’s challenge is to make proper French relevant to kids who do not hear French spoken “correctly” outside of the classroom.
Never fear that The Class is reminiscent of Hollywood white teacher in a rough neighborhood films Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers. There is no happy ending where the children realize their worth and set goals, and there is no sad ending where the students despair in self-destructive activities. The film simply presents a year of high school existence and allows the audience to analyze this chapter’s greater significance. The last shot of the film leaves the audience with a chill, the classroom where the children and teacher have exchanged knowledge and emotions is for the first time in the film empty; the space swells and reverberates with the transient meaning of all that has taken place between the walls.
Synecdoche, New York: Kaufman left to his own devices
Anyone who saw the preview for Synecdoche, New York anxiously awaited what promised to be the king of Kaufman films. The trailer guaranteed all the confusion of time and space that has become Kaufman’s signature with a bewilderment bonus in the credits, this time Kaufman would direct! In the past screenwriter Charlie Kaufman enhanced the surreality of his scripts with the creativity of music-video directors Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich,) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Human Nature.) However, in Synecdoche, New York Kaufman is left to his own devices to either soar in amnesia or drown in self-pity. He decidedly does both.
Synecdoche, NY is the most ambitious of Kaufman’s work, perhaps because it is the most self-referential. Therefore one imagines that Kaufman carefully considered our nation’s finest actors before choosing Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who won an Oscar for Capote) to play the agonizing hypochondriac. Although Hoffman’s ability and range cannot be denied, his talents seem lost in the circular world of Kaufman. Where Truman Capote went from a witty and gay best-selling author to a morbidly intoxicated loner, Caton of Synecdoche, NY changes more through age-altering make-up than through character development. We know that Caton is a talented artist because he wins a prestigious grant to write and direct a play, yet no statements or actions worthy of such awards are apparent. Moreover, one assumes that despite his gut and negativity, Caton attracts beautiful women (Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis) because of his artistic genius; on closer examination the women’s enchantment with Caton appears only as the icing of a generally dystopic, but fully hetero, male fantasy.

In short, this is a study of one (white male) artist’s consciousness, of his internal fears, failures and desires-- a fact which could improve or ruin the film for you depending on how much you identify with Caton. Obviously Kaufman identifies with the director of his creation, and in fact the director/character relationship is not dissimilar to that of Fellini and his alter ego Guido in 8 1/2. In both films macro- and microcosms blur while exploring the interior world of a creative mastermind, (a man whose imagination is really none other than that of the film’s director.) And although casting the overweight Hoffman as oneself is much more self-deprecating than casting pretty boy Mastroianni, it is fully appropriate in a pessimistic film with a depressive perspective.
Yet where Guido’s failure ultimately becomes a triumph in 8 1/2, Synecdoche, NY ends as a post 9/11 failure. The world Caton attempts to recreate in a warehouse swings out of proportion until Caton is left wandering through the remnants of a war-ravaged industrial city. The last 30 minutes, which drag steadily closer to Caton’s demise, simulate his fatigue and despair leaving the audience equally exhausted. This oversight in editing overshadows Kaufman’s circular mirroring twists which kept the script alive in the film’s first half; eventually what was as grotesque and haunting as a Francis Bacon self portrait, becomes tired, dull, and repetitive. Yet this might be precisely the view of life Kaufman wanted to suggest.