Laurent Cantet discusses his latest film 'The Class'

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Wally Hammond speaks to filmmaker Laurent Cantet whose award-winning school drama ‘The Class’ is a thrilling example of ensemble drama played by kids in a real French school

You couldn’t call Laurent Cantet, the 47-year-old French director of ‘Time Out’ (2001) and ‘Heading South’ (2005), a famous figure in international cinema – not just yet. The son of schoolteachers in rural Vienne and a graduate of Parisian film school La Fémis, Cantet won quiet respect and critical plaudits with his debut, ‘Human Resources’ (1999), a low-key yet impassioned examination of male generational conflict fought out in the banal environs of the workplace, subtly revealed by Cantet as a veritable Freudian and gladiatorial political arena.

With his second film, ‘Time Out’, Cantet, to bastardise Marx, turned his earlier precepts on their head to set them on their feet. In it, he profiles an inventive workless executive who fabricates a fake position and life. The story thrillingly but troublingly questions many of the foundations of modern male identity; its conclusions are optimistic. For his third feature, ‘Heading South’, Cantet recruited Charlotte Rampling and exchanged the world of work and men for that of single middle-aged women and leisure in sunny post-colonial Haiti. As an airport employee says in the film: ‘It’s hard to tell the good masks from the bad, but everyone wears one!’

It’s hats and headscarves, rather than masks, that pose a problem in Cantet’s ‘The Class’, his delightful and absorbing new drama set in a tough, ethnically varied comprehensive school on the edge of Paris. Adapted from a book by its adult star, teacher (‘prof’) François Bégaudeau, ‘The Class’ centres on the school life of 25 adolescents. It focuses an attentive, provocative and sympathetic eye on the hidden world of junior education and is so different in its approach from the hysterical, sometimes risible post-war depictions of the ‘blackboard jungle’ as to render it totally fresh. The film’s understanding of character and context – and of tough, sometimes humorous, realities – has won hearts and minds wherever it’s been shown. It gained Cantet the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year and added a wider public to his ardent admirers.

Which is interesting considering that, as he expressed on a visit to London, he feels that his latest project constitutes a return to his roots.

‘It’s true’, the slightly pensive director explains. ‘Ever since my short, “All at the Rally” – in which I used non-professionals to tell a story about a student demo – I have had a feeling that I was framing my movies too much. With “The Class”, I discovered a freedom that I’ve never known.’

Cantet’s individual approach to cinema – for this writer, he’s one of the most original and exciting filmmakers at work today – would mean nothing without his rich cinematic grasp: his extraordinary powers of attention and his special dramatic gift which add a thriller element to his films. There’s a tension and forward movement to his movies, based on his ability to tease out in dramatic form our common, often hidden, motors and the practical moral choices involved in ordinary life. Key to his work are the extraordinary performances he nurtures, which are, surprisingly, precisely scripted.

With ‘The Class’, for instance, Cantet was unhappy having what he describes as ‘a real casting’ for the 12 to 14 year olds playing class provocateur Esmeralda, new boy Carl, diffident Souleymane, insolent Khoumba and the rest. The production team had organised a workshop in a school when they were just beginning the script, Cantet explains: ‘Fifty kids came along. Some preferred to go off and play football, but 25 stayed and chose to be part of the film – so the class was self-elected and representative, because it was naturally built.’

Naturally built, but artfully organised. François Bégaudeau, a teacher of ten years, plays the French ‘prof’ responsible for instilling in his variably able young charges the joys of the imperfect subjunctive and ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’. A naive colleague asks, unrhetorically: ‘Will they find Voltaire tough?’ while another exclaims ‘They can stay in their shit!’

As the film progresses, it becomesclear that language itself is the battleground in ‘The Class’. Or as Cantet puts it, the war between the French mother tongue and the language the kids use among themselves – ‘Why do you always use Honky names?’ complains one. ‘Why not Assata or Rachid, not Jean?’ And Cantet fires the drama by the simple – or not so simple – misunderstanding or misuse of one word (‘pétasse’, meaning ‘slut’); it leads to the teacher’s suspension.

‘It’s a word that means something very different for my generation,’ Cantet explains. ‘But for kids like Esmeralda it means prostitute – and is extremely offensive. It’s a word that doesn’t share the same meaning in two languages – that’s where the drama starts.’

It’s a fascinating situation, but one, as is typical with Cantet, where conflict leads to more meaningful dialogue. ‘Within this small space (the film’s French title, ‘Entre les Murs’ translates as ‘Between the Walls’)’, Cantet continues, ‘there are things expressed which society should take into account. Because when they are expressed outside, they can take a much more violent path. It’s worth us thinking about what happens inside our schools.’

It’s encouraging that Cantet found making ‘The Class’ the most enjoyable working experience of his life. He wants to continue with his ‘group way of working’. ‘I want to come back to this,’ he tells me. ‘And I’d be interested to see if this method would be suitable for a totally different subject – maybe, who knows, even a period film.’ He’s vague as to the subject he might choose. But knowing him, it will, no doubt, emerge
quite naturally – and collectively.

The Class’ opens on Feb 27.

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