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Perhaps it's a particularly American concept—the inspirational teacher film. After all, here the profession is maligned and underpaid, and well-meaning-but-gutted legislature leaves children behind. So a certain American form of mollycoddling takes hold, and 99% of teacher movies concern a stranger in a multicultural land who inspires kids to "straighten up and fly right." (The one glaring, excellent exception? Half Nelson.)
In his Palme d'Or-winning The Class, French director Laurent Cantet begins from the perspective of these familiar American tropes: a lanky young teacher (François Bégaudeau), looking like a tweedy riff on Daniel Craig, begins his school year in a tough Paris district. However, Cantet then focuses on the lively drama that occurs between the walls of a French classroom, and turns the film into an intelligent and stimulating portrait, loosely based on Bégaudeau's book about his year teaching school in Paris, Between the Walls.
The resulting film is wonderfully human and real. Some of that stems from Cantet's non-traditional approach: Bégaudeau stars as "François," a character based on himself, and his class of students are also non-professional actors from Françoise Dolto Junior High. Never insulting the audience's intelligence, The Class asks the audience to participate in learning alongside François' class of teenagers; like life, the film is sometimes frustrating and sometimes exhilarating, and lessons are learned. Words matter. Teachers work like dogs. And the educational system in France is imperfect—leaning towards broken in some aspects—despite the efforts of good and dedicated people.
This humanist bent is nothing new for Cantet, whose previous work, including Human Resources and Heading South, has taken a nuanced look at subjects as diffuse as older women (including Charlotte Rampling) heading to Haiti for sex, and, well, human resources. That said, The Class has proved to be somewhat of a breakthrough for the director. It won the Palme D'or at Cannes in May and is France's official entry into the foreign language race at this year's Academy Awards. Tribeca recently sat down with Cantet at the Regency Hotel to discuss education in France, the making of the film, and what may make a good teacher.
Tribeca: So, just to clarify, what's the educational system like in France? Is it as broken as it is in America?
Laurent Cantet: It's getting worse and worse because they are cutting the number of teachers, there [are] more and more children in the same class, and teachers are not very well paid. The other problem is training. For teachers in the high school, you just have some training for a year, but that's all. So when you come out of university, you have good knowledge of the subject [but] not the method. So you always try to find [a] good way to deal with it; sometimes it's more empirical.
T: What inspired you to make this film?
LC: A lot of things. When I start to write a film, I don't know why I write the thing. I first wrote Souleymane's story, even before reading François' book. I started with the very last scene, where Souleymane faces the disciplinary council. I wanted to see this tough guy translating to his teachers what his mother says [quoting Souleymane]: "She says I'm a good boy." That was the first line I wrote and from that I was writing this whole story of this kid. After that, what really interested me in showing school, was to be part of a debate—that's really important in France—about school, and trying to avoid [an] ideological position. Because I don't want to say what school should be—I don't know what a good teacher is, I don't have the answers to that—but what I want to do is show what can happen in a classroom, and from that you can think about the system.
T: Was François a good teacher?
LC: What is a good teacher?
T: Do a lot of kids get a lot out of his class? There's a point where a mother's talking during parent conferences and saying that her kid, a smart kid, is ignored in the class and doesn't get a lot from the school. It seemed like the smart kids didn't get as much attention.
LC: First you have to accept the idea that the film is not documentary. We're not trying to show the entirety of the school system, it's the moments of friction, tension, in the class. So we choose the moment of discussion. Of course François is teaching in a more conventional version. But he thinks it's important to sometimes the children [a chance] to think about what they're doing here, to think about what they're learning, even if it's to say, "We don't need that." He always tries to make them understand that even if they think they don't need [something], it's important to know how to speak in a correct way.
T: Or the scene where he gives a longer answer to the kid asking him whether he's gay or not.
LC: That's also something that impressed me, that François feels that each situation can become a learning situation. You can learn from anything. Especially here with Souleymane, who's really representative of tough guys who are a little bit homophobic. François is just trying to make him go a little bit further, to show him what he feels is maybe not the best way, that it's an issue.
T: Words are important in this film, and I was wondering what was intended in the film by the use of "skank" [referring to the English translation of a French slang word that's very important to the film]?
LC: What was important with the word is that it has different meanings according to the age of the people. For me, I've used it with my own daughters and they were shocked too. For François, it means: bimbo girl, not very clever, a little bit trashy, a (slutty) eager way of dressing. That is not a very good word for us, but for the kids it became one. So that was important for me: even the plot of the film started on the misunderstanding of one word. Because the film is just trying to say that language is maybe the best tool to find your place in society, and if you don't speak the language, of course, you can't interact with the others.
T: What's Bégaudeau like when not in your movie?
LC: He's someone who likes all kinds of experience. He's a teacher, he's a writer [a book on Mick Jagger], he's a film critic [for French Playboy], he was a punk singer [fittingly, for a band called Zabriskie Pont, probably a tribute to the Michelangelo Antonioni film], he was a soccer player. Every experience is good for him, which is why he was very happy to participate in the film. Working with him, it seemed natural to me to ask him to play himself. All the characters are non-professional actors, with everybody bringing their own experience. The principal in the school is the real principal of the school, so everyone knows what he's speaking of.
T: How is his teaching approach like Socrates'?
LC: He will always try to ask questions and try to make the children answer the questions. And try to make them think about the questions they will have to face later. Of course, it's a risky way of working, because you never know what will happen. It can go off the rails.
T: What surprised you about making the movie?
LC: What surprised me was how concentrated the children could be during the whole shooting day. That they were able to improvise, to give improvisation. [When] I asked them to say lines, they were able to react, and make it a little more precise every time. They could stay involved for six hours in what they were doing. Most of the teachers were surprised and jealous sometimes to see that. When you manage to give a sense [that] what you're doing is important to the kids, you can ask everything of them. [They felt] validated by the interest I had in what they were saying.
T: So that could make for a more lively classroom, those techniques.
LC: Maybe, but I had a good role in that I didn't have anything to teach them. There was not an exam at the end. We were kind of friends, and that's also what François tries to do when he discusses with them. He's not trying to be friends with them—but he tries to find an equal-to-equal way of talking; in that sense, he's kind of an idealist. He's not trying to dominate things. I think it's the only way to build dialogue, and maybe the only way to teach, because if people don't want to listen to what you're saying, they can learn, but they'd forget it very soon.
T: What was it like to win the Palme d'Or?
LC: So sad. [Laughs.] It was very surprising. The film was made in a very artisanal and handmade way, and a very experimental way, too. When we started the workshops, we didn't know what it would be like at the end. No professional actors, no precise script—we had a script, [but] I wanted it to be as open as possible. I'm very happy that this kind of work can be recognized by the cinema. It was also very, very pleasing to share with all the children, all the teachers. I'm very proud of one thing with this film. We wanted to show this class as a space of democracy, and the film has been done in the same spirit, with a real democratic approach. In the end it's a real congregation, a real teamwork, and all the kids were on stage to accept [the award]. That was important, maybe more important for them than me. They are so often stigmatized, they are so often criticized, pointed fingers at, and at that moment they felt that their work, their talent, what they are, was recognized. That this image on the screen became, for a very short time—because I think the day after, it was forgotten—the image of France now.
The Class opens this week for Academy Award consideration in New York and LA.
See it starting December 19 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York.
The film opens wide in January.