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.
How 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.
The 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?
I’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.