Posted tagged ‘laurent cantet’
Week in and week out, as part of our ongoing series of video interviews, I chat up film-world personalities along with my producer and colleague, Cristina Garza. And sometimes, it’s the things people say before the cameras go live, or after they’ve been powered down, that remain with me weeks or even months after the conversation ends. There is an art to the interview, to be sure, and even after a decade of face-to-face repartee with people I admire (and a few I don’t), there’s always something to learn from every exchange. Gabbing with a director for a long-form print piece, for instance, is not the same as sitting her down in front of a camera, which records, warts and all, not just the back-and-forth banter (or its gaps), but the physical appearance of the interviewee, which makes some people (even A-list celebrities) self-conscious and just a little stiffer than they might otherwise be. A good video interviewer must be respectful and informed—that’s a golden rule—but also a decent judge of personality and mood, able to loosen up and relax the person being filmed before the tape runs.
Last week, I spoke at length with French writer-director Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Demonlover, Boarding Gate) about his new film Summer Hours, which is screening at the 2008 New York Film Festival. Though I’ve met Assayas twice before and consider myself a fan of his work, I knew he didn’t remember me (why would he?) and wanted to find a way to engage him before we were locked into formal conversation. (He was preoccupied, but far from nervous.) I asked if he’d had a chance to see Laurent Cantet’s The Class, the Opening Night film at NYFF and currently a theatrical hit in France, knowing he’d have a strong opinion one way or the other, probably negative. Without hesitation, he told me he took issue with the film’s “micromanaged sociology,” which led us into a discussion of the new vogue for realism in today’s international cinema. Assayas prefers the “mystery” of pure fiction, he told me, because—except in special cases, such as the work of Frederick Wiseman—he finds it is superior to the aesthetic paradigms of documentary. Ironically, for him, fiction offers a more sophisticated engagement with reality. This I found utterly fascinating, and while his remarks didn’t change my own opinion of Cantet’s observational schoolroom drama (one of the best at NYFF this year), they allowed me to pursue a related point in our discussion of Summer Hours, a pastoral family drama filmed in an almost classical French arthouse style.
Mike Leigh (Riff Raff, Secrets & Lies, Naked) was a different case altogether. On the eve of our interview, several acquaintances warned me that Leigh was notorious for being irascible and rude, and not just to journalists (which is sometimes understandable). Having heard about his ostensibly arrogant, hard-charging way of dealing with the public, his students, and those with the temerity to lob questions at post-screening Q&As (the nerve of some people!), I was anticipating a most unpleasant tête-à-tête with the legendary director, whose latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky (also at NYFF), I consider to be one of his best. Instead of a sour personality, though, Leigh was a vivacious presence. He bounded into the hotel suite where we’d set up, greeted us warmly, and gamely took a seat in a swivel chair by the window overlooking midtown Manhattan, telling us how much he loved being in New York for the film festival each September, when the weather is crisp and autumnal. And he responded amicably when Ana Maria, our videographer, prompted him with a few get-to-know-you questions to test the microphone. It was only once the interview began that I got a taste of Leigh’s acerbic conversational style. He flatly refused to synopsize his film for the benefit of non-festival-going viewers, saying “No—ask me a question.” Then, during the course of our lively banter, he had a habit of tweaking questions, dramatically stopping the camera to clarify a fact, and defending his image from what he seemed to perceive were the philistine forces of reportorial consensus: “It is absolutely erroneous that …” went one reply, or [I’m paraphrasing here] “The idea that I left the theater for film is a hoary myth perpetuated by legions of journalists, mostly those, in my opinion, of an uncritical and unintelligent orientation.” And so it went.
I actually found Leigh’s combativeness sporting, and told him so, a remark that made him chuckle darkly. Some might find his manner hostile or impolite, but I think Leigh is charmingly forthright; he seems to enjoy holding people to the letter and form (if not the spirit) of their inquiries, demanding the same rigor and seriousness from his viewers as he does from his actors and students. And if nothing else, his cranky candor reminded me that precision, in speech or written argument, is always a virtue. I look forward to our next sparring match.
Damon Smith is the editor-in-chief of FilmCatcher.
This year’s opening night selection of the New York Film Festival comes as the Palm d’Or winner at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Laurent Cantet’s classroom-genre meditation The Class [or, as titled in France, Entre les murs, meaning literally “between the walls”]. The movie is carried, not just in story but also in gravitas, by François Bégaudeau; as Mr. Marin, middle school French teacher, Bégaudeau, lends his real-life experiences at the helm of a young adult classroom, and in essence plays a version of himself. Bégaudeau, an author and literary critic, adapted his novel for the screen and skillfully captures the dynamic of chaotic harmony of early adolescence in the classroom.
This film is deceptive in the way it introduces the viewer into the whirlwind of middle school, and in the case of The Class, a multi-ethnic inner-city middle school, and Cantet makes careful choices as to what the viewer is granted access. Following the course of a single school year, no stone is left unturned; from the thin-membraned solace of the teacher’s breakroom to the staff council meetings to the parent-teacher conferences to the revelations of the family dynamics of the students themselves, this inner-city middle school comes alive with what seems to be a magical minimum of effort.
That said, Cantet’s choices could not have been so easy. Even with a class of twenty students, the viewer never feels alienated or out of reach of the lives and complications of the students as well. The students are presented through the lens of Mr. Marin, who after only four years of teaching at this school seems to have a grip on the tribulations ahead. His class is by no means saintly, and the students have no qualms with discord or discontent. At times combative, vulnerable, defiant, and uncertain, the students of Mr. Marin’s classroom (the actors all of junior-high age, no artifice of a primped and camera-ready face among them) bring both mesmeric honesty and perhaps unsettling reminders of the middle school through which everyone must pass.
Bégaudeau is wise to imbue Marin with the frustrations and pratfalls of any other teacher in his situation; Marin is young and clean-cut, equal parts confident and imperfect, and not afraid of a fight. He understands the limitations of what a teacher can and should do, from learning of the deportation of a student’s mother to the possibility of another student’s expulsion resulting in being sent back to his family’s poverty in Mali, Marin keeps to his directive as teacher and does not, cannot, interfere. Marin does his best to avoid the slings and arrows of his class’s occasional disrespect, but in turn is caught off guard when his frustrations mount in the face of the Möbius strip illogic of two of his cattiest students.
This film takes place entirely between the walls of this school, and although the city does not encroach on this atmosphere, its effects certainly color the lives of every student and thereby eliminates a possible sense of seclusion. Ultimately, at the hands of Cantet and Bégaudeau, The Class is more so a vivid and compassionate a tale of classroom life than any other you’re likely to see.
The Class director Laurent Cantet and FSLC’s Richard Richard Peña
Photo: C. J. Contino
Snapshots from the New York Film Festival are sponsored by Chopard.
“I loved this story of a multicultural junior high school class in France, directed to glide along masterfully. The hopes and compromises of one teacher for his developing students is a nuanced, emotional ride,” writes Rania of Laurent Cantet’s The Class. Read the rest of the post here.