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

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Arts and Entertainment
Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters performs at Suncorp Stadium on February 24, 2015 in Brisbane, Australia.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans had initially distanced himself from the possibility of taking the job

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
British author Matt Haig

books
Arts and Entertainment
Homeland star Damian Lewis is to play a British Secret Service agent in Susanna White's film adaptation of John le Carre's Our Kind of Traitor

Film
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.

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
    Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

    They’re here to help

    We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
    What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

    What exactly does 'one' mean?

    Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue