Class act: How the French director Laurent Cantet netted an Oscar nomination

The French director Laurent Cantet tells Jonathan Romney how he let a class of school children loose on his script – and ended up with an Oscar nomination

The new French film The Class is one of the best documentaries of recent years – or at least, it looks like one. In fact, it's neither a documentary nor is it, strictly speaking, a docudrama, insists its director, Laurent Cantet – it just happens to have an unusually strong flavour of reality about it.

The Class (in French, Entre les Murs or "between the walls") has a powerfully simple premise: in a Parisian school, a class of 20-odd teenagers interact with their teacher, sometimes amicably, sometimes combatively. The whole film takes place within the school, and mainly in one classroom, over a year and largely in close-ups. Such potent directness impressed the Sean Penn-led festival jury in Cannes last year, which awarded The Class the Palme d'Or. Now Cantet's film looks set for further success, as a contender for Best Foreign Language Film at next weekend's Academy Awards.

The film's energy and immediacy, and the pupils' total ease in front of the camera, make it hard to believe anything in it was fabricated. In fact, The Class is fiction grafted on the real: shot in a Paris school, it features a cast of real pupils, parents and school staff.

The film is based on a bestselling 2006 autobiographical novel by François Bégaudeau, a teacher turned writer, columnist and TV commentator. Bégaudeau co-wrote Cantet's film and himself stars as a teacher trying to impart the complexities of the French language to a generally resistant class of teens. But the personable, prickly, charismatic teacher on screen isn't strictly François Bégaudeau, but rather "François Marin", who may or may not resemble his creator. Either way, the film's mix of reality and artifice helped make The Class a hot topic in France even before its release there last September.

"It was a little embarrassing at first," admits Cantet. "Everyone was talking about it before they'd even seen it. Not about the film itself so much, but the subject – and because they'd seen the trailer, everyone felt confident they could discuss it as a docudrama. I heard 1,000 things said which were way, way off."

Cantet had been planning a school film for some time before he heard of Bégaudeau's novel. When he met and enlisted the writer, he quickly realised Bégaudeau should appear on screen. "What struck me about his character in the book," Cantet says, "was his very personal classroom style, the way he provokes the students to make them say things they wouldn't otherwise. He makes them see their reasoning doesn't go far enough."

Bégaudeau's novel reads like a free-form, rather blog-like account of everyday school life; by contrast, the film sticks more cogently to the ups and downs of Monsieur Marin's bantering, caustic relationship with his pupils. And though some of the film's events are taken from the book, what we see comes largely from the class itself. The film's young actors are students of the Collège Françoise Dolto in Paris's 20th arrondissement, the multi-ethnic Belleville area. Advertising for participants, Cantet selected a group of teenagers, who signed up for a year of workshop sessions one afternoon a week.

But while the pupils are seemingly just being themselves, they are also playing characters they developed before filming. One boy, Arthur Fogel, for example, is absolutely convincing as the class goth, defiantly announcing that he dresses in black as he has a "dark soul". In fact, says Cantet, "Arthur completely created his role. He asked, 'Do we have to be like we are in real life?' I said, 'No, you can be a goth if you like.' He volunteered – and I think he got to experience something he couldn't have tried otherwise."

Cantet, his co-writer Robin Campillo and Bégaudeau started by writing a traditional script – although the novelist has described his input as essentially glorified fact-checking. But for the actual filming, the class was not given lines, just guidelines. "I'd say, 'I want you to say this, you to say that, you to react like this' – and then François, who knew where the scene was going, would kick off the improvising."

Cantet shot the "lessons" with three digital-video cameras – one on Bégaudeau, one on whichever pupil was talking, a third catching the background buzz and distraction of the average classroom hour – "someone being bored, someone chewing a crayon, or drifting off and staring out of the window".

Because the film feels so real, it has sparked much debate in France over what viewers have assumed is Bégaudeau's real-life teaching method, of which not everyone approves. Certainly, the classroom behaviour of his on-screen alter ego can be surprising, even infuriating: casual and high-handed, always ready with a sardonic put-down. The film certainly

doesn't present François Marin as an ideal prof, but for all his shortcomings, Cantet admires his style. The director wanted to make something as little as possible like the films typified by his own bête noire of classroom cinema, Dead Poets Society, "where the teacher is always a guru figure, always says exactly the right thing. Our teacher is the opposite of the Robin Williams character – he takes risks, gets it wrong sometimes, asks questions more than he provides answers."

The social importance of The Class lies in the fact that it is not just a film about schools, but about modern France and cultural exclusion – and the film will surely have a strong resonance in Britain, which suffers its own cultural paranoia about youth and race. For Cantet, one of the pleasures of making the film was seeing his young cast – including the children of Malian, Moroccan, Chinese and Turkish immigrants – vindicated when they all accompanied the film to Cannes. "Those kids in particular are usually stigmatised – 'They're all idiots, they're the kind who set cars on fire' – and suddenly people were looking at them differently."

Cantet, 47 and from the west of France, is himself the son of teachers. "I heard teaching discussed at the dinner table, so I had a rather more intimate relationship to school than my friends." Now he's the father of two teenage children, but, he says, "I don't know what's going on at school as my children don't talk about it much – maybe because they're not interested, maybe because it's their world and they want to keep it to themselves. So while I felt I knew that world, I also felt I'd become a stranger to it. That's why I wanted to take a closer look."

Cantet has been known as one of France's most directly political film-makers, ever since his first feature Human Resources (1999), about the conflict between a young executive and his shopfloor-worker father. While Cantet's own politics are on the left, Human Resources found favour with both ends of the political spectrum for depicting union issues in a fresh, non-doctrinaire way. Cantet went on to make Time Out (2001) about a man's extreme reaction to executive stress, then Heading South (2005), a Haiti-set drama about female sex tourism. That film was his one experience with a star, and Charlotte Rampling fitted his bill perfectly, Cantet says, fearsome on screen but happy to muck in, "queuing up with her plate among all the German and Dutch tourists".

Depressed by the current lack of energy of the political left in France, Cantet sees his job, and that of like-minded French directors, as combating the complacencies of the Sarkozy era. "Sarkozy tells us there's no more difference between right and left, that we're all in the same boat – that politics doesn't exist. One of cinema's missions is to show that it does."

Yet Cantet doesn't see himself as a celluloid militant. " My films don't profess to change things by themselves – they're about asking questions. We live in a complex world, and you have to accept that complexity and look at it in a very precise way. You just shouldn't think you're seeing things more accurately than anyone else."

'The Class' (15) is released on 27 February

Foreign Oscar winners we have loved and hated

I definitely know the face...

The name hasn't gone down in history, but Tuvan actor Maksim Munzuk (above) was briefly one of world cinema's great forces of nature, playing a hunter in Akira Kurosawa's magnificent 1975 Siberian-set drama Dersu Uzala

Brief encounter

The award has gone to some films that have simply disappeared in the mists of time – perhaps the most obscure being Sundays and Cybele (1962, by Serge Bourguignon – c'est qui?), about a traumatised French soldier. Among the unjustly forgotten is the humanist nailbiter Journey of Hope (Xavier Koller, 1990), a Swiss drama about Turkish refugees

Flash of glory

The world's hottest actor, for a brief while, was Germany's Klaus Maria Brandauer (bottom), who dazzled in Mephisto (1981), about an actor thriving under Nazism. He reunited with Hungarian director Istvá*Szabó in Colonel Redl (1985) and Hanussen (1988)

Infamy, infamy

If not the worst of the bunch, Claude Lelouch's Un Homme et Une Femme (above, 1966) was arguably the kitschest winner, promoting an image of French cinema as chic, soppy and superficial: blame it partly on Francis Lai's score ("Sha-ba-da-ba-da!"). A stronger contender for biggest dud is Life is Beautiful (1998), Roberto Benigni's misbegotten Holocaust feel-good film, with an even more horrific acceptance speech.

JR

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