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

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'