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Interview: Laurent Cantet on “The Class”

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12172008_theclass1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

It was the kind of coincidence that doesn’t happen in a Laurent Cantet film: on the press tour for his last feature, “Heading South,” the filmmaker appeared on the same radio talk show as François Bégaudeau, a former teacher and film critic who recently published a novel about his time working at a junior high school entitled “Entre les Murs (Between the Walls).” Cantet was already intent on making a film about a classroom when he met Bégaudeau outside the studio and offered to buy the rights to his book on the spot. The resulting film, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes and impressed at the New York Film Festival, also stars Bégaudeau along with a group of 24 students from Françoise Dolto Junior High in Paris, playing more or less themselves. Over the school year documented in the film, “The Diary of Anne Frank” is read and issues of ethnicity and class are discussed as much as grammar. But when a poor choice of words by Bégaudeau’s candid educator (named François Marin in the film) causes a ripple effect in the classroom, the flaws of the democratically-run school are exposed, from the quick-tempered students who are encouraged to question authority, only to see it turned against them, to the teachers who are puzzled in how to handle the incident, when they’re not bickering over a new coffee machine.

While education, or lack thereof, has defined the characters in several of Cantet’s films (“Human Resources,” “Time Out”), “The Class” represents an opportunity for the director to examine its source, particularly as it reflects the diversity of contemporary France. Cantet recently sat down with me to discuss why he didn’t set out to make another “Dead Poets Society” and where he keeps his Palme d’Or.

Doing the math, your children, who had roles in “Time Out,” seem like they might be the same age as the students in this film. Did they have an impact on your making this film?

I realized that I didn’t know anything about what was happening to my children when they were out of my view, especially when they were at school, because school is a sort of a secret place. Children don’t want to speak of it because they want to protect this independent space, and also, maybe, they think it’s not interesting. One of the girls in the film says [in response to being assigned to write an essay about their life], “So what can we say? We wake up in the morning, we eat, we go to school and we go to bed. And that’s all.” So yes, I was curious to see what can happen in a class like that and yes, the influence of my own children was certainly something important.

12172008_theclass3.jpgHow did the story come together? I had read that you had already written a script about Souleymane, the troubled Malian teen whose plight in the film most resembles a traditional narrative.

I was planning to spend a lot of time in a school to see what was happening, to understand the relationship between teachers and children. When I read the book, I realized that François had given me a point of view from the inside that I would never get by myself. I was also very interested in the character of François as he describes himself in the book — the way he was always trying to push his children a little bit further to provoke them, to help them to grow up.

We decided to mix [in the story of Souleymane] because the book is a chronicle of one year in a class, and if we didn’t put the storyline in, it would have been a documentary. When I’m making a film, I always try to say things through stories and through the way the characters lead them — it was important for me to create this story. And François accepted it from the very beginning.

You’ve said before that you were conscious of films like “Dead Poets Society” where the teachers are practically deified, so was it ever an idea of yours to push back against those kinds of films?

I didn’t want to create a heroic teacher who knows everything, who helps children any time they have a problem. It was important for me to show that a teacher is just a human being dealing with human beings and that he can make mistakes. In all my films, [I don’t have] a heroic character — the guy who knows everything, who solves everything. I don’t think human beings are that clever.

Education has seemed to play a role in all of your films, though never as a focal point. What interest does it hold for you as a filmmaker?

It’s important to look at the transmission of what we are, to show that it’s not possible to go on functioning in a system that does not evolve. In “Human Resources,” it’s obvious that the father and the son feel the gap between them [when the son begins working as at the same factory as the father], but I don’t think the father wants his son to be like him. I always think that the world is changing faster than people really think. We’re always running behind the changes that are imposed by the way we live.

12172008_theclass2.jpgThe class in “The Class” is made up of many different cultures and language is such a key point in this film — is the ease of communication, whether it’s because of cultural assimilation or technological advances, actually making it easier for misunderstandings?

I’m not sure it’s a question of technology. I think it’s more a question of how we accept each other. Of course, a few decades ago, we wouldn’t have spoken to a teacher in the way [that François is by his students]. Street culture is getting a bit more space to exist and that of course creates more misunderstandings between generations, and between classes too.

Are you noticing a generation gap in how people are responding to the film?

A lot of kids came to see the film in France, and I was happy because I think it proved that they understood the film was giving a better image [of them] than the one we usually see from an adult [perspective]. I really to do justice to who they are, what they do, the work they produce and their intelligence, and I think they really felt that and they wanted to see it. The mirror was interesting for them, which was not obviously the case for some teachers who were a little afraid of the image we were giving of school.

Since this film was largely improvisational, was there a moment when you knew this was going to work as a feature length movie?

I felt that quite early. Usually, I’m a director who always doubts himself and what’s happening in front of the camera. This time, I was always fascinated by what was happening and felt very early that the film….I was not able to say that it would be a great film, but one that really works and that it looks like what I was expecting. I’m not used to that.

Since François plays himself and the classroom scenes flow freely, did you hand off some of your authority as a director to him?

12172008_theclass4.jpgI’m not a dictatorial type of director and I always try to share the process with everybody who is working on the film. With François, I think it was the most satisfying relationship I’ve had on a film because it was sort of a double of myself inside of the scene driving the children to say what I was expecting, who was building the scene with me. It was really very funny to work like that. François is also interested in cinema. He was a critic at Cahiers du Cinéma, so we could speak together without problem of what the film should be.

Last question, where do you keep the Palme d’Or?

It’s still at the production office. It’s very heavy and I’m afraid to put it on my scooter, so it’s still there.

[Photos: “The Class,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2008; director Laurent Cantet]

“The Class” opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 19th for an Oscar qualifying run; it will open in limited release on January 30th.

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Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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