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Laurent Cantet, Director of Oscar-Nominated Film The Class, on French Teens and Culture Clash

French director Laurent Cantet’s The Class — which won the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and has since been nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar — is a quietly observed drama about one year at a high school beset by clashing cultures. New York’s David Edelstein calls it “a remarkable movie” in this week’s issue of the magazine. Prior to its release, Cantet spoke with us about the film’s evocation of multiple social divides, and how the French trust their teenagers more than Americans trust theirs.

You employed a lot of workshopping for this movie.
All school year, every Wednesday afternoon, we would meet outside of the regular school time. What we were doing these afternoons was working to improvise situations that could be similar to the ones that I was planning to film — trying to avoid rehearsing the real scenes so that they wouldn’t get bored with it when we filmed, but still captur[ing] some elements of the proposed film. That helped me write it.

The easy assumption is that the kids are just playing themselves, but anyone who honestly remembers their teenage years knows that as a teenager, you put on a lot of different masks.
Yes, I think that kids are always acting, and I think school pushes them to do that, because everybody is always prone to characterizing one another so simply — this one is a good student, this one is the bad one, this is the funny guy, and so on. And they confirmed what we expected from them.

What was their response to some of the class-based and racial or ethnic tensions in the film?
We tried not to discuss what we were doing. I preferred to experiment with them — to make them propose their own thoughts, and then how to embody those. It’s sometimes very hard, when you speak of things, to be natural after that. But I could feel that what we were saying was very important to them, just through the implication of their involvement. Especially when we went to Cannes. I really felt that they were very proud of that, especially because for once they were recognized as full members of the community.

In French, the title translates as In Between the Walls, and yet, in the United States, the movie is called The Class — why?
I think that distributors were initially afraid of the image of prison that it could give to the film.

One of the things I think American audiences will find particularly striking is the notion of classroom representatives in after-school staff meetings with teachers.
It’s funny, because in each country that I go to, people are surprised by the fact that we have representatives like that. It’s a way to include the children in the process of schooling, and to give them the opportunity to say what problems their friends are having, or to give other students information about what the teachers said about them. So it’s very natural to me, but of course, there is a dangerous side, because kids can choose to not be honest about transmitting what was actually said.

François discovers that he cannot authoritatively use the same slang that his students use.
François is not trying to tell them, “You shouldn’t speak like that.” He’s only saying, “Right, you speak like that when you’re together, but in the class we’re trying to be a little bit more precise, and we try to speak another way.” I think that’s very interesting, especially in France, where we have an image of our culture which is very strong and very classical. School is supposed to give you the language of Molière and Proust. François and I, as well as a lot of younger people, consider culture to be [more fluid], something that moves every day.

Related: David Edelstein on The Class

Laurent Cantet, Director of Oscar-Nominated Film The Class, on French Teens and Culture Clash