The Cannes Film Festival is French, but it is certainly not a celebration of French cinema.
The French seem to use Cannes to entice Hollywood stars to visit their country to be photographed, and to honor great international films that are a little too weird and arty to be acknowledged in their homeland.
Cannes has bestowed its Palme D’Or – the festival’s highest honor – to American art films like “Taxi Driver,” “Wild at Heart,” “Barton Fink,” and “Pulp Fiction.”
For the first time in a generation, an actual French picture has won the Palme D’Or: “The Class” (“Entre les Murs”). And deservedly so! “The Class” is the finest French film I’ve seen in ages and the best movie I’ve ever seen about the public school system.
“The Class” follows one school year at an ethnically diverse Paris high school.
This is NOT “Stand and Deliver,” where hardened hearts are melted and everyone passes the big test. This is real life in a mediocre school: little is learned, lives are not changed for the better, and the teachers and administrators are sometimes as immature as the students.
“The Class” does a great job of showing the frustration of naïve teachers who are angry that they can’t succeed in keeping their kids quiet long enough to actually teach them anything.
The teachers haven’t figured out that their primary role is not to educate children, but to babysit them so the poor parents can earn a living and have a little time away. If high schools did not exist, the currently rare situation of a teenage girl and her mother simultaneously strangling each other until they are forcibly separated would become much more common.
To clarify: when I call high school teachers “babysitters,” I do not mean it as an insult. Not only is the job of maintaining order and discipline in a room full of adolescents difficult, it is extremely important for society.
The primary purpose of high school, as far as I can tell, is not to teach kids to read and do math. The number one benefit of high school is that it teaches arrogant children to be emotionally tough and humble.
A good parent will make their son or daughter feel special and important. That child’s high school classmates provide a huge service when they knock him down a few notches. An overconfident boy’s teachers and buddies generally do a good job of educating him that the world does not, in fact, revolve around him.
That is why children who are home schooled are much better educated and yet much less prepared for the realities of life. If a young person can survive the emotional tortures of high school unscarred, then getting along with people in the real world will be a relative breeze.
“The Class” offers an uncompromising and thought-provoking take on a difficult and important subject. It is an absolutely first rate film.