Every year, Cannes pundits attempt to read the tea leaves on the top prizes by looking not at the films but at the jury: Are its members serious, political, airheads, in any way beholden to producers or agents with a work in competition? This year’s jury head, unorthodox and left-leaning American actor Sean Penn, announced the socially conscious nature of his criteria at the festival’s outset and, again before final deliberations, restated that the results would be “the opposite of the Oscars” and would prize an unconventional film.
Indeed, the jury showed great taste in their unanimous choice of Laurent Cantet’s “The Class,” the first French film to take the Palme d’Or in two decades. It’s a seemingly simple, but infinitely complex portrait of an instructor — played by Francois Begaudeau, the author of the book on which the film is based — in a “have not” Parisian school. “The Class” offers fresh, incisive and unselfconscious performances by 25 students who were culled from 3,000 nonactors to play his unruly subjects. The film’s neodocumentary treatment of daily classroom events eventually develops into a compelling narrative about a troubled Malian student whose violence leads to a crisis for class, teacher and the boy’s family. Deeply humanist, made with stirring commitment and profound insight, “The Class” deserved everything it got at Cannes: standing ovations, critical raves and the top prize. Ironically, the actor-students who crowded the red carpet and the winners’ circle would have probably otherwise found Cannes’ ubiquitous security guards barring their way to any celebratory soiree!
James Quandt is the senior programmer of the Cinematheque Ontario, a division of the Toronto Film Festival.