French writer-director Laurent Cantet specializes in projects that mix scripts fashioned from a combination of controlled improvisation, non-professional performers and a semi-documentary approach—films like the highly-praised “Human Resources” (1999) and “Time Out” (2001). His new picture, “The Class” (“Entre les murs”), about an academic year in a Parisian junior high school, has garnered not only critical raves but the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. It’s based on a partly autobiographical book by Francois Begaudeau but the screenplay was derived from workshops with the actual students chosen to play parts in the picture (Begaudeau plays their teacher), and shot in long takes with three video cameras on a real campus. In many respects it represents a remarkable summation of Cantet’s style and point of view about the direction of contemporary French society.

“It was sure for me from the beginning that the film would be done just with non-professional actors—real students, real teachers,” Cantet explained in a recent Dallas interview. “I always work with movies like that, trying to enrich the film with the experience of all the people who are working on it. And especially for this one, it was important, because I don’t know school anymore—my children don’t want to speak of it, because it’s a state of indifference, I think. And when you ask your children, ‘How was it today,’ [their answer is], ‘Good,’ and ‘What did you do?’—‘The usual.’ And that’s all I can learn about school from my children. And the teachers also protect themselves behind the walls of the school because they are very exposed. A lot of people know exactly what a good teacher should be, what school should be, and so they don’t like to expose themselves.” And today’s reality is different from what he experienced himself: “It was thirty years ago, the psyche was a little different, and I was living in a provincial small town, and we didn’t have this kind of ‘mixity.’ We were all white, middle-class students. And I think the psyche was much more peaceful.”

The script was based on Begaudeau’s book, but enriched by workshops held once a week after school with the students chosen to play roles in the film, and then further refined by improvisation during the shoot itself. “There is quite a lot of improvisation in the film,” Cantet said. “I worked like that for my previous films, especially for ‘Human Resources,’ but this time I decided to go a little bit further by accepting the risk of improvisation during the shooting. I also changed my way of filming. Usually I shoot in 35mm, but this film was done in HD. So we have these very long shots with three cameras; we don’t even have to make a shot and a reverse shot later, or to cut. We really had the sort of freedom that video can give you.”

Cantet added, “The improvisation was mostly in the first take of each scene. First I told each child what I wanted them to say, because we wrote a script, and the script was quite precise. We had lines—things that they said during the workshop, things that I took out of the book, things that I really needed for the story to go on. But Francois was starting the lecture without their knowing where it was going, and they were able to improvise with him and to introduce in the improvisation all the precise lines I asked them to say, all the reactions I was expecting. The first shot was very long, twenty minutes, to see how they could live the situation, really. It was also a way to respect the energy of the dialogue, to see how far they could go. And then I was giving them more indications—‘That was interesting, you can forget that, you will put that at the end of the scene’—and I was rebuilding the scene through what they proposed and what I was expecting. And we used to make five, ten takes of the whole scene, every time a little bit more precise. But it was all based on what they proposed the first time, and what’s quite impressive is that during the editing we realized that we could make the very first one, which was really improvisations, and the very last one, that was totally rebuilt, and they had the same energy, the same authenticity.”

And, he noted, the students in the picture weren’t necessarily playing versions of themselves. “Some characters are quite close to the actors, but others really built the characters with me. I needed, for example, Souleyman to be a tough guy, but I didn’t find a real tough guy in the group. And I don’t think I would have been able to be attached to a real tough guy. Franck Keita, who is acting Souleyman, is a very nice boy—very shy. But he likes acting—I realized that the first time we met—and I thought it was very interesting to give him this part because it gives him a sort of depth—it’s not just a façade. You can feel the fragility of the kid, how sensitive he is. But what was funny is, I think he found the character the day we tried on the costumes. Because he was not dressed like that in real life. And at that moment I think he found the character.”

At times, the improvisation brought what Cantet saw as almost revelatory insights. He pointed to one scene, in which the students challenge the teacher for his insistence that they use proper French grammar. “What I wanted to say through the scene was that language is social distinctions. And Koumba [played by Rachel Regulier] understood exactly what we were trying to say, and she said, ‘C’est langue de bourgeois.’ And at that moment she really understood the scene and also what the teacher was trying to tell her. And we had some other surprises like that. For example, when they discuss how difficult it is to write a self-portrait, and Angelica [Angelica Sancio] says to the teacher, ‘I’m not sure you’re interested in our self-portrait. That’s what you say, but you just do that because you are a teacher.’ So I think they show through these moments that they are also actors in their learning process, and not only people who receive knowledge. And I think it’s really important.”

On the other hand, some memorable moments came from Begaudeau, like a reference to Plato’s Republic near the close. “That comes from the book. Francois was a teacher, and he had a student, a girl, who was a little bit like Esmeralda [Ouertani, who plays Sandra] in the film—you know, this kind of tough girl who doesn’t want to abandon the discussion, who is always trying to have the last word. And at the end of the year she said that. In fact I was a little bit afraid of having it in the film, because I thought it would maybe sum up a little bit too clearly what the film is trying to say. But we shot that scene, and I thought Esmeralda was so incredibly good in that moment, that of course it stayed.”

Of Francois, Cantet said, “What I tried to do is not to make a teacher who is not a model, an example. He’s not a model teacher. He’s someone who’s making a lot of mistakes, someone who’s very human because of his mistakes. He’s just dealing with human beings, and he’s himself a human being, and so things are not always as perfect as a script could make of it.” But he added, “I think the children in the film respect him…during those moments we show in the film when the teacher decides to accept the discussion. It means that he accepts sort of an equality between him and them, because you can’t discuss when you are the ‘adult’ and being condescending. But it’s a risky exercise, because when you start a discussion, you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. You are always improvising. And you are in front of kids, and kids always define themselves in a position to what the adults give them as a model. So it’s a more psychological thing. I can see that with my own children. When I say something, they want to say the opposite, you know? And I think it’s maybe a good way of growing up.
My son is someone who doesn’t understand exactly why he is in school. And that’s also what this teacher is always trying to do with the children, to give sense to what they are doing. And I think it’s maybe the only way to really teach things deeply. You can lecture children, and they will learn a few pages of a book, and three weeks later they will forget it if you don’t show them why they are learning it. I think that even if the relationships are sometimes quite tense, it’s always very rich, the relationship you have with teachers.”

Cantet has been especially pleased with reactions from audiences who have viewed the film, and particularly with comments from some young people after screenings. “One of them told me that what was important for him was that he saw teachers speaking together, and he saw teachers like human beings, and not just like figures that they have in front of them in the classroom, like super-adults that embodied the rules and discipline. And seeing teachers speaking together changed his point of view on them. And I think that if the film can do this, it’s a sort of victory for me.”

Cantet also said that the multi-ethnic makeup of the class depicted in the picture, though not representative of all French classrooms, was important to him: “What I hope the film shows is that this ‘multiculturality’ is a richness—that the children in that class really have the experience of others, of other kinds of relationships to the world. And it also shows that belonging to a community means sharing a sort of culture, and that culture is not just the classical culture. It’s also this everyday way of being that’s built by all the people that are together. And I think that…all those kids really build our culture, and most of the [French] people don’t want to accept that.”

And, Cantet said, he wants the film to give a sense of how the battle is never over. “That’s why I wanted the last shot with the empty classroom,” he explained. “Francois is waiting for a new year of fighting, you know?”

*On January 22, 2009, it was announced that “The Class” was one of the five nominees for the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film.