By Jonathan Marlow
For a country that arguably invented cinema (if you discount the concurrent efforts of the Skladanowsky brothers and others), it is perhaps predictable that France continues to produce many of the most interesting films released each year. In the French film industry, a particular inclination toward realism can be traced all the way back to the “actualities” of Louis and Auguste Lumière. However, it was the peculiar and wonderful work of Robert Bresson - from Journal d’un curé de campagne and onward - that retraced the development of cinema from the style popularized on the opposite side of the Atlantic to a form that repositioned and repurposed the realities of everyday life. This form utilized a mix of professional and non-professional actors to reach something closer to “truth” than conventional, commercial cinema.
There are several filmmakers that have, in recent years, expanded on this tradition stylistically and geographically - Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (Belgian brothers who generally work in the French language with a French cast), Eugène Green (although born in New York, an expat that has lived, taught and directed in France for many years) and Bruno Dumont (a former philosophy teacher from Bailleul, a town in French Flanders), to name only a few. Over a little more than a decade and five feature-length works, Laurent Cantet has firmly established himself as one of the most talented filmmakers working in France or elsewhere. From Les Sanguinaires (perhaps best known in this country as part of the 2000 Seen By… series) to Ressources humaines/Human Resources (his exploration of small-town factory and family life at the close of the twentieth century), L’emploi du temps/Time Out (one of the finest films ever made about unemployment and “keeping up appearances”) to Vers le sud/Heading South (which follows a trio of female tourist traveling in Haiti during the 1980s), Cantet crafts deceptively modest stories that arrive at complex destinations. In his latest, the award-winning The Class (Entre les murs), the entirety of the tale takes place in one school over the course of one year. As in Human Resources, he sets the action in a real environment and allows real individuals to contribute to the verisimilitude of the story. It is a process that effectively pulls the audience deep into the narrative and enables a bit of remarkable perceptiveness to flourish.
Director/co-writer Laurent Cantet arrived from a screening of The Class at the Golden Horse Film Festival in Hong Kong for a two week US press tour (of which the conversation that follows is a part).
You started as a cinematographer.
I studied at the IDHEC [Institut des hautes études cinématographiques], the cinema school in Paris. Before that, I studied still photography. I was quite interested in becoming a director of photography at that time. My earliest jobs were working on short films as DP or as an assistant on a longer film [Veillees d’armes].
Your writing partner on your first two feature-length films is also a director. As I recall, you photographed his short films.
In fact, both of my early co-writers are directors. On Human Resources [and Les Sanguinaires], Gilles Marchand later made Who Killed Bambi? Robin Campillo [Time Out, Heading South and The Class] directed They Came Back and he is also the editor of all of my films. I met Robin at school and we’ve always worked very closely together.
These collaborations seem very important to your work. You have a tendency to work with the same crew.
I like to work with the same little family. It was especially important for this film, The Class, because the crew was very small. In fact, the DP [Pierre Milon] is the same as on all of my other films. There were only ten or fifteen crew people on The Class. It was really as small as possible because we didn’t have much space in the classroom. Also, I prefer to have the time to talk to each of them. I can’t imagine working with a large crew of fifty people! It seems impossible to me.
It wouldn’t seem suitable for your subject matter. With The Class, the cast almost entirely consists of non-professional actors. This is obviously not the first time that you worked in this way. In Human Resources, for instance, Danielle Mélador adds a certain authenticity as the union leader.
In all of my films, I try to use people that are involved in the things that we are filming. I always try to take into account their life experiences.
Did you spend more time with The Class developing the story with your cast than you’ve spent on other projects?
Probably not more than Human Resources. That was also a long process. Usually the experimentation process takes place before the shooting. With The Class, we continued improvising in the classroom to create a certain energy and to give life to those scenes.
Were you familiar with the book Entre les murs/Between the Walls before deciding on this project?
No. In fact, I first wrote a script - it wasn’t finished, just the beginning of a script - four years ago, before shooting Heading South. We had to postpone the shooting of that film without even knowing if it would ever get made due to the political problems in Haiti. The script was about the story of Souleymane and it was similar to the book since all of the action takes place in a school. Two years later, when I finally managed to complete Heading South, I was invited on a radio show to discuss the film and François [Bégaudeau] was invited, too. He was presenting his book, Entre les murs. We talked for part of an hour and I realized that it would be interesting to collaborate. I told him about the project and François said, “Read the book and we can talk.” Two days later, we met - by then, I had finished reading the book - and I proposed a loose adaptation. The book is a chronicle of a year but I wanted to use this material as a starting point that would enrich the film. He accepted that. He also agreed to star in the film. What additionally interested me about the book was that it was François’s story. To effectively improvise during the shooting, the teacher would need to believe in what he was saying. It was obvious that he was the best to embody this character.
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