Class, The: Interview with Director Laurent Cantet

Cannes Film Fest 2008–Interview with Laurent Cantet

In the Beginning

Just before making Vers le sud (Heading South), I came up with the idea of doing a film about life in a junior high school. Very quickly, the project defined itself to never leave the establishment’s enclosure. At the time, more and more people were speaking about making a “sanctuary” of schools. I wanted to show the opposite, a sounding board, a microcosm of the world, where issues of equality or inequality–in regards to opportunity, work and power, cultural and social integration and exclusion – play out concretely.

Of note, I had developed a scene about disciplinary counseling, which I saw as a kind of junior high “black box”. At the time of Heading South’s release, I met François who was presenting his new book, Entre les murs (Between the Walls) at that time. His discourse was a counterattack to the indictment on today’s schools.  For once, a professor was not writing in order to get back at adolescents presented as savages or idiots. I read the book, and I immediately had the feeling that it would add to my initial project in two ways. First, material, the documentary support it needed, and which I set off to create myself by going to spend some time in a junior high school. Secondly, I was inspired by the character of François, by his direct relationship with his students. He summarized and incarnated the different aspects of teachers that I had first imagined.

We did not want our narrative thread to be obvious immediately. We wanted the characters to develop progressively without really seeing them coming. The film is firstly a story of life in a classroom, the life of a classroom: a community of 25 people who did not choose one another, but who have been called upon to be together and work together between four walls for an entire year. Souleymane is first see as merely another student of this classroom, equal to the others. After an hour of chronicle, a story takes shape and he is the center of it. Only in retrospect do we realize that everything was already in place before.

We wrote an initial summary, a backbone of the film, destined to be irrigated and modified throughout the year of preparation according to a plan I had already tried outin Ressources humaines (Human Resources). The idea was to use an existing school and during the filmmaking process, to integrate all the players of academic life. The first door that we knocked on was that of the Françoise Dolto Junior High in Paris’ 20th arrondissement. It was the right one (we would have filmed there, if the school wasn’t undergoing construction). All the adolescents in the film are students at Dolto; all the teachers teach there, including Julie Athénol is the counselor and Mr. Simonet is the assistant principal. With the exception of Souleymane’s mother, whose role is the most fabricated, the parents in the film are those of the students in real life.

Born Actors

Work with the adolescents began in November 2006 and lasted until the end of the school year. We ran open workshops every wednesday afternoon, and all the kids of the fourth and third level (ages 13-15) could participate. Not counting those who came just once, we saw some fifty students. Almost all the ones who make up the class in the film are the ones who stayed with us for the entire year. The others dropped out on their own.

During the course of the year, a class took shape. François participated in all the workshops. We progressively learned how to get to know the students, searching in them what we could use to graft onto the skeletons that we proposed. The characters of the original script, who existed only because of the situations that they could generate, became more defined. The young Chinese boy in the book, for example, interested me because of his still fragile French skills and for the episode of his parents’ deportation. But the Wei in the film owes a lot to the boy who plays him. For example, we did not write a word of his self portrait nor the passage where he explains how he feels shame for others.

We used a whole spectrum of processes, depending to what extent the characters were constructed fictionally. Arthur, the gothic kid, for example, was not foreseen in the script. But a few weeks before the shoot, the costume designer came to investigate their closets. She asked if one of them wanted to become gothic. Arthur threw himself into the idea. I guess he wanted to live out something that he didn’t dare. He took the plunge in fiction. I took this choice even further by asking his mother to make an issue of it in her discussion with his teacher.  That was actually the only encounter that I really guided. The other parents proposed their own themes, projecting onto the characters the expectations which they really have for their children.

During the workshop improvisations, we tried to push the students as far as possible to see if they could handle this or that scene. One day, I asked Carl to be very aggressive toward his teacher, and he proposed a scene of unexpected violence. A few seconds later, I suggested another situation : he has come from another junior high school where he had been kicked out; here he wants to pass for a nice kid. Instantly, he created a quiet character, intimidated by François. The scene is actually in the film.

The one who went the farthest in creating his role is certainly Franck (Souleymane in the film). He’s a very reserved, sweet guy, the exact opposite of the character. We had to fabricate with him this tough guy image. We totally transformed his look, to the point that, in the first fittings, he felt like he was in disguise. Actually, his costumes helped him slip into the character. With each scene, he surprised me with the violence which he showed himself capable of. As for Esmeralda, she is Esmeralda: monolithic, perfectly at ease with power plays and conflict, which still didn’t stop her from integrating all the instructions that I gave her. I think specifically of the delivery she gives of Plato’s The Republic.

On the eve of the shooting, François spoke to her about this book which she had evidently not read. Before rolling the camera, I asked her to evoke Socrates as if she knew him personally. From the first take, she gave an interpretation of the book that was both precise and incomplete. I was very moved, which must be what teachers feel in such moments.

When I ask a junior high school student to play a junior high school student, a teacher to play a teacher, I do not expect that they will express themselves as they are. I am very fond of the idea of recreation, of the representation of the self that acting implies. Characters can be constructed based on the images that actors have of themselves, on their way of speaking, their way of being. The teachers, for example, were like the students, early on involved in the elaboration of their characters. During the improvisation workshops, they reflected together on the different stakes of the scenes, using this occasion to question their own teaching techniques, or ontesting sometimes my proposals. This is one of the most exciting phases of the filmmaking process. This part has always had something a bit mysterious about it. I never measure the exact part of what I induce, so once a scene is shot, it is always hard for me to know who contributed what.

The Dialogue

The adolescents never had a script in hand. We noticed that when they improvised according to requested situations, they were able to come up with their own dialogue: certain exchanges, certain expressions, which François had in his book–as if it were a matter of archetypes of language and their preoccupations. 

Sometimes there’s a linguistic jubilance, even if what the characters are saying does not grammatically conform to what the teacher expects of them. Then one minute later, they can no longer be able to express themselves: “I know what I want to say, but I don’t have the words.”

The entire film is constructed around language. I wanted to film those incredible oratory moments that are so frequent in a classroom, where relevance or strength of position doesn’t matter much and what counts above all is to have the last word. This is a game at which adolescents excel, a sort of no-exit rhetoric into which the teachers are often pulled in as well. Above all, there are those frequent misunderstandings that lead to no one understanding each other, or understanding just half of what is said.

For example, the equivocation behind the meaning of the word “skank” sets off a conflict. Or the one word too much from François during the staff meeting, the “academically limited” boy becomes a simply unacceptable “limited” from the mouths of the class delegates, which will lead Souleymane to a disciplinary meeting.

How Things Work

I wanted the shoot to continue the improvisational work of the workshops, with the same freedom. HD was indispensable. I already noticed while shooting Human Resources that the cost and weight of a 35 mm camera left little room for improvisation. Things were fixed and hard to change on the shoot. For The Class, I wanted to be able to shoot continuously for 20 minutes, even when nothing was happening, because I knew it would take only a sentence to start things up again. For the classroom scenes,

François begins with a specific subject. What needed to happen was that at a certain moment, a turning point would come up. We explained the situation to the two or three students featured in the scene, giving them some turning points. For example, when François would discuss the subject at hand, they should have this sort of reaction. But they did not know how we got to this stage. As for the others, they discovered what was going on bit by bit during the take. François guided the scene like a classroom course, and I intervened during the takes, honing in on the scene, asking one person to be more precise, asking another to respond to a retort, etc. Each time, it was amazing to see them take off again instantly, with the same energy that they had before I interrupted them, while integrating perfectly my suggestions.

 I was quickly convinced that what we planned to do would require three cameras.  At first, always on the teacher; a second, on the student at the center of the scene, and a third prepared for digressions: a chair losing balance, a girl cutting her friend’s hair, a daydreaming student who suddenly catches up to what is going on. Those everyday details of a classroom that we could never recreate. But we had to be able to anticipate sudden outbursts, little sensitive events that could turn around a scene. The classroom where we shot was square. We transformed it into a rectangular room, adding a technical corridor of two or three meters. The three cameras were on the same side, always facing the same way: the teacher to the left, the students to the right. We are very rarely facing the actors head on. The idea was to film the course as a tennis match, which required putting the teacher and students in an equal position. I faced the three monitors and I signalled to the cameramen to go this way or that when I believed something might happen. Along with François, we slowly learned to gauge a student’s reaction, so as to make sure that the camera would be ready. The way in which François guided each interior scene, after we had discussed together the aims and results, required an understanding that one rarely sees between actor and director (in general, the actor does what the director wants him to) and even rarely between a scriptwriter and a director. Making The Class was different from all my other films. It is the result of a completely shared responsibility.

Intelligence at Stake

I wanted to do justice to all the work that goes into the school environment. In a classroom, intelligence is always at stake – even in misunderstandings and confrontations. It is this intelligence that we aimed for each time we started a scene. Ideas are put under question, understood or moved in the dialogue exchange between teacher and students, between students themselves. This way of placing all bets on intelligence corresponded to the very particular and not very orthodox way that François practices his profession.

Those moments where the class discussion deviated are the ones that interested me the most, and the film is built on them. Few teachers take as many risks with their students : the risk to fall off track, the risk to fail. It is obviously easier to say that one has successfully transmitted this or that piece of knowledge through a lecture than by some induced method. This requires a sang-froid for which many people would criticize François, and for which many people would envy him. There’s a bit of Socrates in that man! 

It fit in so perfectly that I wondered whether it was not too didactic. In any case, if one is searching for a pedagogic position in this film then that’s absolutely fine with me. When the teacher speaks to the students as he would to adults, that might seem tough, but it’s often more insulting if he had handled them with kid gloves. This is a way of recognizing their active role in the classroom arena. The same holds true for the use of irony, which is a way to solicit an adolescent’s ability to decode. François is not shy about open confrontation with his students and that seems completely respectful to me because they are considered as worthwhile interlocutors. His teaching technique consists of digging into students, even when it might be painful, to show them their reasoning is too short to be acceptable as it is. If you’re wondering about democracy in the classroom, it is in these moments that it exists.

No One is Entirely at Fault

There was no question of making François into a superhero. When one takes risks, things can go wrong, misunderstandings can be provoked. We worked in this direction.  During the first takes of the playground scene, François was too in command of the situation. I asked him to forget the storyline, to be destabilized, because he knows that he has made a mistake and also because he is in the minority. In confrontations, the teacher is not always the master of the game. In class, the teacher poses questions, which cut to the bone, but the students also have questions, which give him a hard time. I can refer in particular to the scene where he answers that the difference between written and spoken language is a question of intuition. He is seen at the end of his arguments, assaulted by a chain of questions which he is expected to answer.

The same is also true for teachers when they discuss their techniques. When they discuss the necessity of the disciplinary meeting for Souleymane, for example, their starting point is clear : Souleymane will be expelled. But this does not constitute any certainty. On the contrary, nobody seems sure of what they are saying : one affirm one thing, the next one adds nuance with another sentence, so much so that what was just said now sounds uncertain. I like to show in “real time” how true reflections come about. This scene also allows us to blur the line between François and the other teachers. François is part of a group discussion ; he is not against the others, he is among the others.  The film does not try to defend nor accuse either side. They all have their weaknesses and outbursts, their moments of grace and pettiness. Each one can exhibit both clairvoyance and blindness, comprehension and injustice. I even have the impression that the film expresses something paradoxically positive: a school is sometimes very chaotic, uuseless to cover its face, there are moments of discouragement but also great moments of grace, immense happiness. And from this great chaos, a lot of intelligence can be born.

The equality pact between teacher and students is broken in the last third of the film, around the affair of the disciplinary meeting, with all it suggests about hierarchy and authority. But it is not completely annulled. Because the entire film has shown a functioning utopia. Not a theoretical view nor an affirmation of what a school should be, but a description of what it sometimes is. And then the moment comes when utopia bumps into an even bigger machine, against something that resembles what is happening outside the walls. This does not stop the fact that something has taken place.