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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.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.