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The Class - Laurent Cantet interview

Laurent Cantet

Interview by Rob Carnevale

FRENCH director Laurent Cantet won last year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes for his new film, The Class, which follows a teacher and his students over the course of a school year in France, exposing the trials and tribulations experienced by both sides of the classroom.

Cantet talks about why he feels teenagers are too often stereotyped in movies, how he hopes to have inspired some of them and what it was like to pick up the coveted Palme d’Or on home soil…

Q. Do you have a newfound respect for teaching having made this film?
Laurent Cantet: It’s true, I could say that I’ve learned to consider a teacher’s work with more indulgence than I possibly could have before.

Q. And what about children… do you think that teenagers are often stereotyped a little too easily in films and by society?
Laurent Cantet: One of the reasons I wanted to try and make this film was to try and give another image of the one we normally get of adolescent teenagers. Adults, I think, are a bit scared of teenagers, scared of their energy, and their overwhelming go for it attitude. We’ve all got nostalgic memories of our own teenage years and in everyone’s head it was better before. I wanted to really say: “Look, you see all these teenagers that we tend to point the finger at… they’re also capable of displaying intelligence and clarity of thought if you allow them the time and space to express themselves.” And that’s even if it’s not always a comfortable situation to get into, which I’m also aware of.

Q. There is a wonderful ambiguity about the film, which sees the teacher sometimes overstepping the mark and invites too open a dialogue? Was that deliberate?
Laurent Cantet: Yes, I had a desire to show a teacher who wanted to take that kind of risk and a teacher who also wanted to show that school is not just about grammar lessons, but also how to become a citizen, and how to develop your sense of responsibility, etc.

Q. And I would imagine your young cast responded to that in their performances?
Laurent Cantet: Yes, that’s also one of the reasons I wanted to work with non-professional actors because I nourish, I enrich and I get things from their own experiences. And, as a result, their involvement is far more interesting and important because they’ve become really committed because they believe and can understand and sense that they’re part of the collaboration of the film and not just obeying orders.

Q. Were there times, though, that you kind of felt like a teacher yourself from behind the camera?
Laurent Cantet: Of course I gave instructions but in a very different relationship to that of a teacher. I had totally different responsibilities, really. I wasn’t there to be teaching them something. There wasn’t an exam at the end. And the atmosphere was also good. We had a laugh and were relaxed.

Q. I guess what I meant is that everyone can remember their inspirational teachers… so did you become an inspirational director in the sense that you inspired any of them to pursue a professional acting career… or directing?
Laurent Cantet: I think their way of seeing teachers has changed. Their outlook has changed and they all understood how hard it was sometimes to find yourself facing a classroom full of them. So, for example, Esmeralda Sancio [who plays Angelica] saw it and one of her first reactions was: “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to change.” But I think they are more tempted now by a career as an actor, rather than that of a tutor [laughs], although not for the great stardom that comes with it. And I think that desire comes from the great adventure we all went through, which was a very good experience. So, I think they have a desire to have that whole type of experience again.

Q. What’s the most surprising reaction you’ve had to the film? I imagine they’re quite varied?
Laurent Cantet: The ones that have astonished and amazed us, really, are from certain teachers who refused to accept the image that the film gives of teaching. Another great surprise was the reaction of the teenagers, who are normally used to going and seeing American movies, action movies, and who are now wanting to go and see this film. They wanted to see how adults were describing their world.

Q. Congratulations on last year’s Palme d’Or win for The Class at Cannes. How special was that moment?
Laurent Cantet: It was a beautiful moment, mainly because it was the first time we were showing the film. So, to have had that kind of reaction was fantastic. But it was also really, really pleasant because we shared the moment, all of us, together. It was such team work that it meant a lot for all of us to be able to go up on stage. I could sense the joy that the kids had… they were maybe even happier than I was. I think they were very moved because they’re not used to being applauded. People clapped and recognised their talent and the work they had put into this.

Q. Have you stayed in touch with them?
Laurent Cantet: We regularly keep in touch and there’s always a good excuse to meet again. They send me emails and tell me what they’re up to. Occasionally, we speak on the phone.

Q. Will you be working with Francois Begaudeau [who plays the teacher] again?
Laurent Cantet: Why not? Our closeness, our way of working was very, very close. I’ve never had that closeness with another co-writer or an actor. So, I hope so.

Read our review of The Class