Claudia Leisinger

March 2 - 8, 2009


The Class, the award-winning film that uses real students to represent school life, has faced accusations of exploitation. The director tells Leigh Singer why fiction can be more sincere than fact.


Goodbye, then, Mr. Chips. RIP, Dead Poets’ Society. The ‘inspirational teacher’ movie, almost its own mini-genre (To Sir, With Love, Dangerous Minds, and so on) is the last thing on the syllabus for French director Laurent Cantet in his exceptional new film The Class.

“We wanted to avoid this ‘Master of Thought’ teacher who never makes a mistake, a super-adult,” explains Cantet, a suave, silver-haired fifty-something who despite near-flawless English, is today mediated through a translator. “First of all because I believe teachers suffer a lot from that image that children have. I wanted to show a school in all its complexity, where the students don’t always learn, and the teachers are not always sure of what they’re doing.”

In his native France, former teacher Francois Bégaudeau’s book Entre Les Murs (The Class’s original title), a detailed account of a year in a Parisian junior school was a huge hit. By coincidence, Cantet had already been mulling over a similar project set, as with the novel, solely within the four walls of one classroom. But he soon saw the advantage in joining forces with Bégaudeau and this “amazing documentary material that came from him spending 10 years inside a school.”

In earlier films like Human Resources (1999) or Time Out (2001) Cantet had been renowned for his use of a near-documentary style and non-professional actors. For The Class, he decided to go even further. They chose a school in Paris’s racially mixed 20th arrondissement and held casting calls from the actual students. Those selected came to workshops once a week for several months, wherein characters and relationships gradually evolved, frequently in close connection to the students’ own lives and situations.

Of course given these close parallels to reality, with many youngsters sharing first names with their onscreen counterparts, Cantet has faced criticism that he’s blurred, even exploited, the lines between fact and fiction. He remains adamant that his approach is not simply valid, but perhaps more effective than straight documentary.

“What I’m interested in is telling a story and working with actors,” he declares.  “I believe that by recreating a real event or moment, one manages to become more sincere than when you’re actually just filming a documentary scene. And I believe that the characters we create protect the actors and as a result they can be even freer to give themselves to us.”

“For example the character of Souleymane,” he continues, citing a Malian student whose threatening behaviour instigates one of the film’s most dramatic storylines. “[The boy] is not like that in real life, he’s called Franck and he’s the sweetest person. But what he said in an interview the other day is that it unveiled things within him that he didn’t think he was capable of, especially this brutality.”

What impresses most about The Class is how Cantet (and by proxy, Bégaudeau, who plays M. Marin, a version of himself) elicit such nuanced, entirely natural behaviour from the remarkable untried ensemble. The strategy sounds simple - three cameras, shooting on high-definition video, to allow lengthy, unobtrusive takes, where Bégaudeau led the group in structured “lessons” that were still open to improvisation – but the results belie the gruelling preparation involved. Cantet, however, refuses to take the credit.

“School makes everyone an actor,” he says breezily. “The teacher is putting on a performance. The way he uses his body and his voice is an improvisation. Maybe that’s why François is such a good actor.” As for the archetypal student roles, “You have the tough guy, the good pupil, the bad one,” he notes sagely. “Even in real life they are working with characters that have been assigned to them.”

Initially Bégaudeau’s Marin seems the ideal teacher: determined yet open, playful and yet forceful with his kids, many of whom are quick to test him. A standout scene occurs where two of his multi-ethnic class mock Marin for always using Westernized names for his blackboard examples. What’s heartbreaking about the film is how it shows even a good man crack under severe provocation, to the point where he’s the bete noire to some students, yet ironically the only real protector they had.

Again, Cantet smoothly refutes the notion that his is a depressing view of modern inner-city education, citing those on the front line who have seen the film. “Teachers are fed up with this miserable image of their profession,” he states. “What comes from them is that the film is very just, saying that it’s not easy at all but it’s also very, very exciting.”

Yet as in his previous films where Cantet condemns the systems and infrastructures that often require individuals as sacrifices, he’s also clearly against the old-fashioned, top-down measures, “teacher as simply the transmitter of knowledge”, being brought back in by the Sarkozy government. “Francois and I prefer making you consider what you’re in the process of doing,” says Cantet, “maybe make you question and even doubt it, but at least make you think about your schooling.”

Finally it’s as a piece of art more than a social treatise that The Class is being recognised, winning last year’s Cannes Film Festival, its young cast joyously taking to the stage and upending the traditional, stuffy prize-giving. “There was great spontaneity,” smiles Cantet, who insists on sharing the Palme D’Or with them all. “And so often they’re used to having the finger pointed at them and being badly judged that to see themselves being recognised this way filled them with happiness.”

Of course the young often make the most honest – and harshest – critics; so what about Cantet’s own teenage children, who he admits were notoriously evasive when he quizzed them on their own school days? “‘How was your day?’ ‘OK.’ ‘What did you do?’ ‘Same as usual,’” he says laughing, acting out their frustrating exchanges. And when they finally saw it? “They all have the feeling the film does them justice,” he smiles, a soupcon of pride evident in his eyes. “They said it was my best film.”

The Class is out Friday 27th February 2009

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