François Bégaudeau, who plays the teacher, François Martin, wrote the book about his own classroom experiences that Cantet based this film on, and also collaborated on the script. Bégaudeau/Martin's pedagogic method is to stand his ground in the frequent verbal battles that happen in class. He's fast, supple, sometimes ironic. He is not perfect; his tendency to challenge and engage, while it keeps things lively, can also lead to confrontation and negativity. At one point he uses a slanderous word (pétasse, translated in the subtitles as "skank") for two of the girls who have been unruly as class representatives at a meeting with teachers, and a confrontation that follows with the undisciplined Soulaymane (Franck Keita) leads to the latter's expulsion and embarrassment for Martin when his language becomes known to his colleagues. On the other hand, despite constant challenges, dialogue happens, even about such arcane matters as French subjunctives.
The unique value of this film is that much, though not all, of it takes place directly in the classroom and involves real instruction and learning. So many films about schools don't have that, and the efforts to convey believable classroom moments in narrative features, even good ones, are often feeble. Here there are all kinds of classroom discussions--about whether the kids want to reveal themselves in "self-portraits," whether Martin is gay, rival football teams, national loyalty, The Diary of Anne Frank, even Plato's Republic, which a rude outspoken girl, Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani), reveals she has read her sister's school copy of.
In a contemporary French context, one thinks of Abdel Kechiche's (also prize-winning) Games of Law and Chance (L'Esquive), which has kids from a similar French banlieu neighborhood: it also focuses on how the emigrant kids encounter classic French linguistic culture as the school project is to put on A 18th-century play. In Kechiche's film there is more variety: we get intimate looks at the home lives of various characters, their interactions out of class, and the principals' love conflicts. Cantet focuses only on the class and more briefly on gatherings with other faculty and in the school yard, never showing the kids at home or by themselves or indeed ever straying outside the school. On the other hand, Cantet captures the real classroom dynamic. Of course, this story is specialized too: it only shows French class, but the students are also taught by half a dozen other teachers whose work we do not see. Ultimately this is perhaps more about the teacher than the students, important though they are.
Interesting contrasts come through the multiple identities represented: African, Caribbean, Moroccan, Turkish, Chinese--and unspecified whites, who may be a slight majority among the class' two dozen students, but aren't often heard from (it's the troublemakers who emerge most prominently). The Chinese boy, Wei, is the best student, even though he is deferential about his abilities and shy about his speaking abilities. There are inklings of the fragility of French residency for new arrivals. News comes later in the year that government agents have seized Wei's mother because she was illegally in the country. At a faculty gathering a woman teacher who's just announced she is pregnant touchingly proposes a toast and makes two wishes: that Wei will be okay and that her child will be as smart as he is. Rumor has it that if Soulaymane (Franck Keita) fails in school his father will send him back to the "bled," the old country, which is Mali.
The disciplinary actions that lead to Soulayman's expulsion bring bad vibes to François's classroom. But as the film jumps forward to the end of the year, good feelings seem to have returned and the teacher gives out copies to the students of a booklet he's had made of all their "self-portraits" with photographic illustrations, which is well received. A shocker comes though when at the very end, after students have talked about what they've learned in school that year, one girl comes up to François privately and tells him that in all her classes she has learned nothing, and understood nothing. François' adeptness almost fails him when faced with this confession. Needless to say, this is no feel-good To Sir With Love movie. But what's positive about it is the vibrancy of the social dynamic and the fact that communication really does happen, with challenge and response ceaselessly on both sides. It's fascinating how the kids catch up the teacher and how he (for the most part) successfully parries their thrusts and perhaps even convinces them, to some degree, of the value of standard French in a mulitcultural France.
Cantet has used improvisation with non-actors before, notably in Human Resources, which shows a factory labor struggle that divides a family. The notable thing here is how authentic and seamless the classroom action appears. Students constructed personalities close to but different from their own. Events are telescoped, as in François Bégaudeau's book. Up to 7 or 8 takes were used to hone a segment, but according to Cantet, the young actors got back into the spirit of things so successfully that they could be intercut seamlessly. The result is maybe the liveliest and most naturalist reinvention on film of a contemporary public school classroom, in all its volatility and variety. And since blends of documentary and narrative often represent the cutting edge today, Cantet's achievement seems a very up-to-date one.