"Success wasn’t guaranteed but the gamble paid off"
by Fabien Lemercier
16/09/2008 - Winner of the New Directors Award at San Sebastian in 1999, the filmmaker also picked up the Cesar for Best Debut Feature and the Louis Delluc Award for Human Resources.
Cantet (47) also received the Don Quixote Award at Venice in 2001 for Time Out, before being selected in official competition at Venice in 2005 with Heading South [trailer, film focus], which scooped the Best Male Newcomer Award.
The highlight of the director’s successful career is the Palme d’Or he won at Cannes in May for The Class [trailer, film focus]. Two days before his triumph, the filmmaker spoke to the international press on the Croisette about the sense and original method that led him to explore the subject of school through a cinematic medium combining fiction and documentary.
What attracted you to François Bégaudeau’s book and the subject of school?
Laurent Cantet: School is a place that is difficult to enter when you’re neither a teacher nor a pupil. I had old memories of school and distorted perceptions from what my children told me about it. I wanted to go and see for myself this little world where the society in which we live is formed. And the book provided the raw material I lacked. I also wanted to remain within this enclosed space and for this little world to act as a sounding board for what is happening beyond the school’s walls. Finally, the teacher was an amalgamation of several characters that I wanted to explore onscreen. And François Bégaudeau seemed to me the best qualified to play this teacher.
How did you achieve this blend of documentary and fiction?
By working at it for a long time. Throughout the school year that preceded the shoot, a workshop was held at the Françoise Dolto secondary school. This was attended by all the volunteer pupils aged 13 to 16, and for three hours per week they improvised situations suggested by me, enjoying themselves in the process it seems. This enabled us to get to know each other and also do a bit of casting, but above all it was a long-term project. Right up until a few days before the start of shooting, specific roles had not yet been filled.
I used the same method with the teachers. I wanted to show that, as well as teaching they also reflect on what goes on in their school. This involved a continual back-and-forth with the computer, where we recorded what happened during the improvisation scenes and then made selections and other suggestions: the film is the result of one year’s work. I wanted viewers to constantly be asking themselves if they were watching fiction or documentary.
How much improvisation was used during filming?
I no longer even remember. What‘s surprising is that when you go back to the screenplay you find the scenes that have been filmed, but then there is all the life and energy that the pupils and teachers bring to it. When we began a scene, François knew where he had to go and certain characters knew they had a pivotal line to deliver. Then François started his class and the three cameras captured this reality. Sometimes, I interrupted shooting and asked them to go back over a certain bit, with further directions. And even if my directions seemed to be drowned out by the noise, when we repeated the scene, everything was as I had requested.
You make films that reflect the world without giving any easy answers.
I’m interested in showing that as individuals we grapple with the world around us but we are also cogs in the process of events, and we are not always in control or conscious of this. But this approach is also in tune with my personality: I listen and then faithfully reconstruct. We also tried to avoid ideology; we didn’t want to show “school” but this school in particular; not school as it should be, but this school as it is at a precise moment in time. And I’m delighted that the film is in competition at Cannes. You sometimes get the impression that the films here are big machines, whereas The Class is almost part of an experience. Success wasn’t guaranteed but the gamble paid off.