Interview: Director Laurent Cantent of The Class
Mon, 23 Feb 2009 18:16:39
Prestigious accolades were thrown in director Laurent Cantent’s direction long before his film, The Class (Entre les murs), was nominated for a 2009 Academy Award. Though he didn’t take home the gold last night, Cantent is the proud recipient of the Palm d’Or, the highest honor bestowed upon a film at the Cannes Film Festival each year.
The Class is a unique and fiercely realistic portrait of a junior high classroom, a charged environment where students and teacher clash and grave misunderstandings arise over the use of language. The children in the film are not professional actors, though Cantent spent a significant amount of time collaborating with them prior to shooting. The result is something fresh, contemporary, and largely improvizational in its style of filmmaking—an alternative method which Cantent is intent on protecting. Cantent talks about this loose mode of shooting and the significance of taking home the first Palm d’Or for France in 21 years.
I know that you wanted to make a film about junior high or high school prior to reading the book upon which the film is based. Why are you inspired by this environment?
If you look at the [classroom], you see a microcosm of our society. Important issues are discussed. Children are trying to learn about who they are, trying to find their place in our society. I think it’s important to look at this moment in their lives.
Many people have likened The Class to a documentary. How do you feel about that, considering that you say it is very much a fictionalization?
We worked with real students and real teachers for a very long time before shooting, trying to create characters, trying to build coherence in the [characters]. They really are characters; they are not themselves for the camera. I think that they are more sincere in acting than when they try to speak as themselves. When you are in front of a camera, it can be difficult to show yourself without being ashamed of who you are. They were protected by the character[s they were playing], so they could be more sincere in the way they were [portraying] themselves.
Did you find that the sincerity came from a particular rapport you established with the students prior to shooting?
We spent a lot of time together, and I think that one of the most important things during those moments was to create trust between each other. They really understood that we were trying to [portray] an image of them that was more precise than the image that people usually have for this kind of group. Young people are always fighting that kind of [negative] energy, especially when they are [immigrants].
Was there anything surprising about the experience of working with young, non-professional actors?
I was very interested in what they had to say about their lives. I was trying to find a relationship between what we had written and what they were thinking. What impressed me was that they were able to concentrate themselves on the work we were doing together. We were able to spend hours a day working on one scene, each time moving closer to [my expectations].
“You are not obliged to stick to a dominant way of thinking and making films.”
Did the children encounter difficulties with the acting process because it was foreign to them?
No, in fact, I think they like acting in front of cameras. They are also used to acting in real life. They are always trying to conform themselves to an image the adults at the school have of them. They all stick to that image. They are also used to trying to be very tough. They really play with that in their real lives in school, so I don’t think it was very difficult for them to do it in front of the camera. The camera didn’t really exist for them, maybe because we worked for a long time before and they were used to it, and also, they’re part of a generation that’s used to being on T.V. and they watch a lot of “Making Of” [shows]. I didn’t have to tell them, for instance, not to look at the camera. It’s not the case when you’re working with people of another generation, I think.
Do you find it more invigorating or preferable to work with a structure that is more loose than your average film?
That’s always what I’m trying to do when I make a film. That improvisation is really productive. What I like is when you have accidents while you’re shooting, when there’s something you have to take into account for the next scene, when someone surprises you.
Language and diction play a big role in structuring the film. What does language mean to you in the volatile environment of the classroom?
I think language is the best tool for facing the world and the best way to find your place in society, the best tool to interact with adults. What I wanted to show was that it’s not necessary to tell [adolescents] not to speak the way they [usually] speak. Just tell them that sometimes they have to check the level of language they’re using. It’s not easy for them sometimes, which means that there can be misunderstandings between different people speaking the exactly the same language with exactly the same meaning. We tried to use the plot line to create the crisis that we needed [in the classroom].
What does it feel like for you, having won the first Palm d’Or for France in 21 years?
I’m proud of that, and what makes me the most happy is that it gives me a certain strength for my next film. It will help me make the kind of films I want to make, and in the way I want to make them without being obliged to justify the method, without being obliged to tell people, “Trust me, it will be a film at the end.” I think it’s also important for the films that I like, for my friends who try to make films in the same way, to show the producers and people that are giving money that you are trying to make films a bit differently, but you are not obliged to stick to a dominant way of thinking and making films. I hope it will help other directors, too.