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Laurent Cantet’s Electrifying Cinema

Laurent Cantet’s The Class (2008)

As James Quandt remembers it, the Cannes Film Festival was humming along a little too nicely in 2008. Even such critical favorites as Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Three Monkeys), Jia Zhangke (24 City), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Lorna’s Silence), and Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman) “were chastised for being too much themselves.” And then, just as the festival’s sixty-first edition was winding down, Laurent Cantet’s The Class sent a jolt up and down the Croisette and won the Palme d’Or. Jury president Sean Penn announced that the decision was unanimous.

News of Cantet’s death seemed to come out of nowhere on Thursday. He was preparing to shoot his next feature this summer, and he was only sixty-three. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw remembers him as “a deeply intelligent, high-minded progressive filmmaker of the same generation as Robin Campillo and Dominik Moll whose supremely literate, emotionally committed, stylish, and well-acted movies aspired to address French and European society at all levels.”

Cantet’s Human Resources (1999), the winner of an impressive round of best first feature awards (César, Louis Delluc, San Sebastián, European Film Awards), is “a film that both Godard and Ken Loach might envy,” wrote Amy Taubin in the Village Voice. “It combines an eternally alluring subject—the father-son relationship—with one that’s a more difficult sell: blue-collar work and the conflict between labor and management.”

In Time Out (2001), a middle-aged consultant can’t bring himself to tell his family that he’s been fired, so he dreams up an increasingly elaborate series of schemes to maintain the illusion that he’s still going to work every day. “Cantet seduces us not only into understanding but sharing his dilemma,” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader. “He wants us to be appalled yet sympathetic, and he succeeds largely because he’s found a way to make his story seem paradoxically monotonous and gripping, familiar and peculiar, all at the same time.” Rosenbaum found that Heading South (2005), starring Charlotte Rampling, Louise Portal, and Karen Young as middle-aged women looking for sun and sex in Haiti, “tackles more than it can master, but it’s never less than fascinating, and all three leads are exceptional.”

Extensively workshopped with a cast of nonprofessionals, The Class is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by François Bégaudeau, who essentially plays himself, a teacher struggling to hold the attention of twenty-five ethnically diverse fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds in a secondary school in a working-class district of Paris. “The Class isn’t directly about civil unrest and French identity as a republican ideal,” wrote Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, “though these issues run through it like a powerful current, keeping the children and adults (and the filmmaking) on edge.”

Critics cooled on Cantet after The Class. Reviews of such films as Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (2012), an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s 1993 novel; Return to Ithaca (2014), depicting a reunion of five leftist friends in Havana; and Arthur Rambo (2021), a satirical look at the clash between cultures in the age of social media, were lukewarm at best.

The exception is The Workshop (2017), whose “rich meta-fictional premise, in which a select group of multiethnic youngsters collaborates on a thriller in a writing seminar, allows for a thoughtful reflection on the sociopolitical narratives (and myths) of contemporary, crisis-ridden France,” wrote Devika Girish in the Voice. The scenes in which the writers debate “thrum with energy, thanks to the spontaneous and full-bodied performances of the nonprofessional cast, whose improvised dialogue feels casual, yet cuttingly profound.”

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