The watcher of humankind: prizewinning director Cantet


Laurent Cantet’s films are highly detailed, meticulously observed and they almost always take place in work situations.

His 2000 film, “Human Resources,” for example, had been about a young, earnest manager at odds with his factory’s labor force. Cantet’s latest, “Entre les murs,” (winner of the 2008 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival) also portrays the rift between inspired ideas and actual execution, and the personal risk involved in workplace idealism, this time set in a school.

It seems that Cantet’s interference on the set was minimal. He let the force of his nonprofessional actors carry the story, partly because he knew the film needed it, and partly because of the supreme confidence he had in cowriter and lead actor Francois Begaudeau, who plays the class teacher.

“Of everyone in the film, Francois is most naturally like himself. His personality anchors the story, even when all around him, chaos reigns,” says Cantet.

A self-professed “watcher of human beings,” Cantet loves to step back and just look at people and then let his observations seep into his stories.

“I’m always asking my cast to act less, and be a little more boring and therefore real!” he says.

Here are some more insights from Cantet:

The English release title is “The Class.” But the original French title is something quite different — “Between the walls.”

I thought the English version portray the contents very well. But I do like the original French. It’s suggestive of a prison, you know? Once inside, the walls close in and you can’t get out. And apart from the teachers and students, it’s impossible to know what really goes on inside.

Your films have been described as microcosmic portrayals of modern society.

I’m interested in small universes and how they work, to get inside a system and scrutinize the functions. Society tends to view schools as sanctuaries, remote from the nitty-grittiness of the real world. That’s not true — the students exist in both school and society as individuals and as elsewhere, individuals cause problems. These often become magnified in an inner-city school. I think democracy is constantly being put to the test in a city school, and this is good — both for democracy and for the students!

What kind of a teacher is Francois?

He is first and foremost an idealist who wants to do right by the whole world. He tries to instill perfect democracy in the classroom, but at one point his zeal becomes his downfall. The coexistence of reality and ideals is difficult in any situation, but in a classroom the results can be downright disappointing, as he discovers.

What is your opinion of the French school system today?

It’s strange, but I do think that when I was growing up, the classrooms and teachers were more open to new ideas, more willing to experiment. But now, because the global village has moved into the classroom and there’s so much more diversity, teachers have become introverted and conservative. I’m not saying that it’s all their fault, just that the system has become layered and difficult to navigate. And the government is cutting down on staff.

Like Francois, city teachers instruct 30 students at a time. That’s 1 vs. 30 per classroom, not to mention the complexities that come with different races, cultures, languages. To expect a single teacher to take on that kind of burden is nothing short of political hypocrisy.