The films of Laurent Cantet exude that rarest of things: a sincere interest in how people relate to their work. His films explore the role, meaning and residual effects of work, as well as the ways our institutions shape our sense of who we are as individuals. In Human Resources (1999), Franck assumes a white-collar position at the factory where his father’s been a welder for 23 years, his crossing over from one class to another ultimately symbolizing a betrayal of his roots. In Time Out (2001), Vincent is laid off by a prestigious consulting firm and cannot confess to his family that he’s unemployed, so he drives around France and Switzerland, naps a lot, reads the papers, and dabbles in crime. Work, or lack of it, defines these characters, however extraordinary their cases may be, in ways that ring alarmingly true.
Given this investment in the links between work and self, and given that both his parents were teachers, it’s perhaps inevitable that Cantet would build a film around the institution that ostensibly does more to prepare us for work, nurture our social skills, and mould our identities more than any other. Cantet was already cooking up an idea for a film about a rebellious African student named Souleymane when he discovered Entre les murs, François Bégaudeau’s acclaimed roman à clef about his experiences teaching French at a Parisian inner city school. Cantet abandoned his idea, or rather dissolved into a loose adaptation of Bégaudeau’s book. “What I immediately liked about François is the fact that he is willing to take risks,” Cantet explains. “What some people consider as provocative in his attitude is for him a matter of putting the students on the same level as himself, a way of talking as peers.” The Class is an extraordinary chronicle of one scholastic year in the lives of François and his students. It won last year’s Palme d’Or, and is now an Oscar contender.
Among The Class’ more extraordinary elements are its performances, with Bégaudeau himself playing the role of the teacher François and unseasoned kids playing each of the students. Cantet used three cameras on set, one to follow François, one to follow the central characters with whom François interacts, and one to catch spontaneous activity occurring outside the confines of the roughly established scenes. What emerges is akin to documentary, yet through its modicum of artifice it gets at truths that cinéma vérité often fails to yield. I, along with two other writers, spoke with Cantet via translator in a Toronto hotel, where he was asked about how he managed to capture such tremendous performances from his young, non-professional actors.
“By working with the students a long time, getting to know them, and respecting who they are, they came to trust me,” Cantet explains. “But it was also through creating characters on the basis of what they themselves proposed. Take Wei. Originally in the script there was a Chinese character named Ming, and he was very shy. He wouldn’t speak for fear of making mistakes. Then we met Wei Huang and he was essentially the opposite. He loves to talk, loves a good argument. There was no point in asking Wei to shut up and become something he’s not. As it happens, Wei’s a lot more interesting than Ming would have been.”
Souleymane survived the project’s evolution and, in contrast to the Ming character’s adapting to fit more fluidly with Huang’s outgoing persona, Franck Keïta was asked to reverse his normally shy demeanor. Clothes, that crucial component of teenage identity, played an enormous role in Keïta’s ability to bring out a side of himself that could plausibly behave like a bully. And the tension between Keïta’s tendencies and those of the character make Souleymane compelling, and ultimately sympathetic. As Cantet puts it, “you can see that behind this tough look is a very vulnerable sort of fragility.”
With slight exceptions, The Class unfolds entirely within the confines of the school—within the walls, as the French title states. Thus whatever we learn about these characters is gleaned through the rituals of school life. But what we learn composes not only portraits of individuals but some semblance of contemporary France’s sometimes fraught multiculturalism.
“The idea was to show that the school was neither a sanctuary not a fortress,” says Cantet. “Therefore, everything that happens in the country has an effect on the school. It does happen that people get deported as illegal aliens. It does happen that kids who don’t do well in school get sent back to their home countries. Yet classes continue.”
Running parallel to situations stemming from contemporary cultural phenomena are others that are at least as old as the pedagogical tradition. A key scene where the mischievously charming Boubacar “outs” Souleymane’s curiosity about François’ sexual preferences reveals how closely questions about sex cling to young minds attempting to bring order to their surroundings.
“The part about François’ sexuality is actually in the book,” says Cantet. “Teachers have told him they’ve often encountered similar questions in the classroom, because at that age boys are very interested by anything sexual. Homosexuality is something that intrigues them, but they tend to respond with homophobia. Many teachers refuse to deal with a question like Souleymane’s, but François sees it as an opportunity to discuss, to widen horizons, to show them what’s problematic in their homophobia.”
I asked Cantet about François’ call for openness in his classroom, exemplified in the self-portraits he assigns. François’ policies prove precarious, yet there remains a bold polemic in his story about the importance of balancing privacy with a willingness to publicly share feelings. It gets François into some trouble when he steps out of bounds, yet it also allows some students to transcend the dominant rule of repression that keeps many in their shells.
“One of the things that François has been reproached for is using too much intimacy,” says Cantet. “But it’s so much more interesting when you deal with students on the basis of what is real, what a person’s real feelings are, where they stand, rather than glossing over things. François is an idealist. He tries to create a level playing field between himself and his class, and the system can work against him. Yet perhaps between these conflicting ideologies something valuable can emerge.”