Sometimes the hallmark of a winning film is integrity - in the original sense of the Greek word meaning "integrated" and "whole" - when the film's original vision seems perfectly to match its execution. That's the perfume that rises off Laurent Cantet's "The Class" ("Entre les Murs"), which screened at the tail end of Cannes 2008 and captured the Palme d'Or after a lineup of films that frequently landed wide of the mark. "Class" rolls out all of a piece - Cannes jury prez Sean Penn called it "seamless." And while keeping its boundaries tightly delimited, "Class" opens a window on contemporary France and rainbow cultures beyond.
Confined to a school in an ethnically mixed Parisian banlieue, the film sets up camp in the classroom of a teacher and 25 students over the course of a single school year, with occasional cutaways to faculty meetings and parent-teacher conferences. As the teacher, charismatic Francois Begaudeau (who wrote the book behind the film and co-authored the screenplay) favors a probing, Socratic style of questioning his students, who can be mouthy, sullen, or hostile. Begaudeau's method is not without risk: classroom exchanges can both open minds or veer at any moment into angry confrontation. And ironically, it's a misstep by the teacher himself that both upsets the classroom dynamic and compromises his standing in the school.
Blessedly, Cantet (best known here for "Time Out") avoids the "inspirational teacher" bit. Begaudeau is no twinkle-eyed Robin Williams. As the filmmakers state in the press notes, "Everybody wins." The film took shape from Cantet's weekly improv sessions with the students, which lend it a documentary-inflected realism, a kind of controlled spontaneity. But will American auds go for it? Generally, the educational project, for all our verbal pieties, tends to get short shrift here, while in France it's always been venerated. That presumption is basic to the film's power. You sense that what's at stake in Begaudeau's classroom is the future of a country.
indieWIRE: You'd already had the idea of making a film about a junior high before reading Francois Begaudeau's book. What about his book prompted you to adapt it?
Laurent Cantet: Two things. The book provided documentary elements that would nourish the film. And then the character of the professor, with his unusual and beguiling way of provoking the students to make them think, appealed to me. He used the least situation that arose as a teaching opportunity.
iW: Like in the scene where Souleymane, the student from Mali, asks Francois if he's gay.
LC: Exactly. Plenty of teachers would have said we don't talk about that here, it's irrelevant. But Francois thought, look I'm dealing with these young toughs who are obsessed with images of virility and by having this discussion I can call them on their latent homophobia and maybe help them get beyond that. I wanted to capture Francois's conception of teaching. Obviously the job entails learning French, grammar, etc. but that's not very interesting filmically and the viewer would quickly get bored. What interested me were the moments of tension and friction.
iW: Why did professors in France protest against "The Class?"
LC: They felt what kind of image of school does the film offer? A school where the kids don't work, where they just discuss things. Precisely! I stressed those moments. And it's then that Francois is particularly effective. Because he's not afraid of taking risks. And you never know where the discussion could lead when there are 25 kids and questions come at you from every direction and you have to answer off the cuff. You can't hesitate for a moment.
iW: As principal actor, screenwriter, and author of the original book, Francois had a huge role in this film. How did the collaboration work?
LC: Generally speaking, Francois acted as a kind of reality check. He also participated in all the improv workshops, where he was sort of my complicitous double. He knew where I wanted to go and what I hoped to accomplish with each scene. And he told the students what was expected of them, as a good teacher does. In effect, he guided the scenes.
iW: Ever any conflicts between the two of you?
LC: On the contrary, I've never had such a great rapport with an actor - and author/ screenwriter. Francois signed on to do this adapation of his book because he loved my previous films and was fascinated by the freedom of my style of working. From 'Go' it was clear we wouldn't do a literal adapation, but rather rework the book's elements, which were structured by the storyline of Souleymane.
iW: Could you talk a bit about your method of shooting the film?
LC: We used 3 hi def video cameras: a first, always on the teacher; a second, on the student at the center of the scene; and a third prepared for digressions - those everyday details of a classroom that we could never re-create. We transformed the classroom into a rectangular room, with the 3 cameras on the same side, always facing the same way: the teacher to the left, the students to the right. We are very rarely facing the actors head on. The idea was to film the course as a tennis match.
iW: I was blown away by the film's simplicity. Going in, it couldn't be more understated. You simply see Francois heading off to work, no big deal.
LC: It's a film where you don't feel the work that went into it. I engineered that simplicity. We wanted to stay close to the form of the book, which is the chronicle of the life of a class. And then bit by bit characters emerge who start pulling the film towards something more fictional.
iW: I also saw the influence - in the unity of place -- of 17th century French classicism ...
LC: When I create a film I start with the simplest blueprint. I find that two hours for a film is very short and it's best to keep the focus tight and restrict the boundaries. If I'm going to pay enough attention to what the kids say, I don't have time to follow them home, or explore their love lives - no, I'll stay in one spot. What interests me is the relationship between them and the teacher and how they fit into that school system. The teacher himself scarcely knows how he fits into that system. What always moves me in cinema is when I have the impression that the characters exist. And to bring to life a character who's not one-dimensional or a perfect hero, you have to show his contradictions - and for that you need time.
iW: Were you ever afraid that setting the film in a single place would get tedious?
LC: At the start I was afraid it might get claustrophobic. But what reassured me was that during the workshops I was captivated by the students and their energy. Even in a take of 25 minutes, when nothing much was going on, I had no desire to cut because I was so interested by the kids' authenticity and what they revealed about themselves. Also, during the editing phase I had the impression that the film always outpaces what the viewer expects. One is always in the process of running after the film, and the crisis erupts without warning - and then immediately after that there's a calm you could never have foreseen either. Despite its claustrophobic aspect, the film continually surprises.
iW: "The Class" is an intriguing mix of fiction and documentary. What genre does the film fall into?
LC: For me it's "documented fiction" (une fiction documentee). I love it when a film allows you entry into a particular milieu.
iW: Obviously, Francois Begaudeau plays a somewht fictionalized version of himself. How did the students create themselves as "characters"?
LC: Well, Souleymane is the most "written" character. During workshops we took the students separately and tried to push them as much as possible toward aggressive behavior. Then we settled on Franck Keita. It wasn't a logical choice starting out - he wouldn't have convinced me except for the workshop process - because he was a very nice calm boy, almost withdrawn. This gave texture to the character. Under the violent facade you can also feel his fragility.
iW: Would you say your documentary-style approach is close to Mike Leigh's?
LC: He works as I do in the preparatory phase. I took the risk of improvising even during the actual shooting.
iW: Did anyone accuse you of exploiting these students?
LC: Not at all, they were actors and got paid. We did the workshops during the school year and shot over summer vacation. Everything was overseen by social services - we didn't have the right to exceed 6 hours of shooting a day. And since the film did well in France they got more money. They were totally integrated into the whole process.
iW: Would you agree that at bottom "The Class" is a film about language?
LC: I'd say it's about languages [plural]: French, the students' language, the official language of school, the language of Souleymane's mother; what one girl calls "bourgeois language." What interested me is that the friction occurred around a word -- "petasse" (skank) -- which then triggered the crisis. Language is a social marker, the main tool for finding one's place in our world.
iW: It must have been quite a challenge to create subtitles for the argot these kids use.
LC: It was a true literary labor to recreate the rhythm of that language. The French can pretty much understand it. It's a language that depends a lot on images ... "Je kiffe le cafe" [I dig coffee]. And there's a whole system that involves reversing words - "enerve" becomes "venere."
iW: How will Americans pick up these nuances?
LC: We continually searched for equivalents. It's not a literal translation, but rather an adaptation of the dialogue to give the feel of the different levels of language in the film.
iW: What does your film tell us about the multicultural makeup of France?
LC: What I wanted to show is how difficult it is for those kids to find their place in society. One of the girls, Esmeralda - originally Moroccan -- says I'm not proud of being French. How can you be proud of being part of a community that wants little to do with you? I tried to look closely at these childen, rather than stigmatize them as idiots or dummies. There's a commonly held view that kids today only want to play with their computers. They don't know how to read or write or think - and that applies to the upper classes too. Maybe every generation projects that [negative judgment] onto the previous one. People have contempt for these kids, they're afraid of them because of their energy, especially those who aren't white. I wanted a film that would do this generation justice. These are not just kids who veg out in front of the TV - they're in the process of growing up. Instead of considering diversity a problem, let's look at it as an enrichment.
iW: How do you view France's future?
LC: What always reassures me is the idea that society evolves faster than our image of it and shifts without our being aware. Individuals integrate things and advance faster than the system itself. Who could have foreseen five years ago that the U.S. wuld elect a black president? I have a will to be optimistic. But if one doesn't look squarely at the problems, you risk catastrophe. This film is a way of saying Let's go straight to the source. Let's look at how these kids grow up, how they feel others perceive them, how they become citizens -- or not. If we look at that I believe we can overcome a bunch of of problems
iW: What do you think about the economic meltdown in the U.S.?
LC: In France we're in the same situation. It's a bit like what I tried to show in "Time Out" - the dangers of the virtual economy. This type of work is a menace because it can affect everyone's lives. Maybe we're in a necessary phase. We've been living so long with unrestrained capitalism ... Now we have the proof that it doesn't self-regulate. Let's just say I wouldn't want to be president right now.
"The Class" is being released by Sony Pictures Classics this Friday in limited release after a one week Academy run in December.