Laurent Cantet, whose films explored France's undersides, dies at 63

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Laurent Cantet, whose films explored France's undersides, dies at 63
Cantet’s best-known film was “Entre les Murs” (“The Class”), which won the Palme d’Or, the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, in 2008 and was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign-language film.

by Adam Nossiter

NEW YORK, NY.- Laurent Cantet, an eminent director who made penetrating films about the prickly undersides of French life and society, died April 25 in Paris. He was 63.

His screenwriter and editor, Robin Campillo, said he died of cancer in a hospital.

Cantet’s best-known film was “Entre les Murs” (“The Class”), which won the Palme d’Or, the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, in 2008 and was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign-language film. “The Class” was something new in French filmmaking: an extended snapshot of the inside of a schoolroom in a working-class district of Paris, using a real-life ex-teacher and real-life schoolchildren and treading a provocative line between documentary and fiction.

That ambiguity infuses the film with a rare tension, as a hapless language teacher struggles with his largely immigrant students, trying (with difficulty) to gain their acceptance of the strict rules of the French language, and French identity. In this frank chronicle of classroom life, the students, many of them from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia — bright, sometimes provocative — have the upper hand.

Along the way, Cantet surgically exposes the fault lines in France’s faltering attempts at integration, showing exactly where the country’s rigid model is often impervious to the experience of its nonnative citizens. Reviewing “The Class” in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis called it “artful, intelligent” and “urgently necessary.”

The film touched a nerve in France, selling more than 1 million tickets. Right-leaning intellectuals such as Alain Finkielkraut denounced it for devaluing classical French culture — unwittingly underscoring Cantet’s point.

Cantet was invited to the Élysée Palace to discuss the film with President Nicolas Sarkozy. He declined the invitation. “I’m not going to speak about diversity with someone who invented the Ministry of National Identity,” Cantet said at the time, referring to one of Sarkozy’s more ill-fated initiatives.

That film and a handful of others in Cantet’s foreshortened career — “Ressources Humaines” (“Human Resources”), “L’Emploi du Temps” (“Time Out”), “Vers le Sud” (“Heading South”) — were concerned with the alienation of those caught in inescapable modern-life traps under late-stage capitalism.

The tense, uneasy “Human Resources,” released in 1999, put a business-school graduate in a human-resources internship at the factory where his blue-collar father is to be laid off. Two years later, “Time Out” depicted a jobless white-collar worker who covers up his shameful unemployment with disastrous results.

In the disturbing “Heading South,” based on a novel by Haitian-Canadian author Dany Lafèrriere and released in 2005, Charlotte Rampling gave a bravura performance as the principal among a group of aging sex tourists in Haiti. Reviewing it in the Times, Stephen Holden praised it as “devastating.”

“Mr. Cantet’s film is too sophisticated to demonize these women, whose relationships with their young lovers are more tender and nourishing than overtly crass,” Holden wrote.

In an email message, Rampling wrote: “All the locations were outside and the weather was so unpredictable that we were never sure from one day to the next if we could shoot or how we would proceed. We kept stopping and starting, giving rise to great tension and anxiety in Laurent throughout the filming.” The film, she added, “is flawed, but it is still a fine piece of work from an honorable and good man.”

In these films, as in “The Class,” Cantet called into question the basic arrangements that form the texture of modern life. What interested him in “The Class,” he told the newspaper Libération in 2008, are “the moments where the class transforms itself into a school for democracy, and, sometimes, into a school for school itself. What are we doing here? Why are we here at all?”

A soft-spoken filmmaker who hung back and listened and who was uninterested in the glitz of moviemaking, Cantet was haunted by the last two questions, in a classic French tradition stretching back through Albert Camus and Michel de Montaigne.

Campillo, who worked as a screenwriter and editor on all of Cantet’s major films, said his predilection for nonprofessional actors “wasn’t just about naturalism. It was to work with people who, through cinema, discovered something about themselves.” Cantet, Campillo added, was “very modest. He put himself on the same level as his crew.”

In an interview with French film critic Michel Ciment after he won the Palme d’Or, Cantet described the quasi-improvisational method he developed for “The Class,” in which the teacher, the film’s central figure, was played by the author of the novel on which the movie is based.

“I drew up a minimum of dialogue, to indicate the energy we needed, the attitude of each person,” he said. “At the beginning of each scene, I gave them guideposts, so they had something staked out to work with, and then we went to work with something much more constructed.” Dargis reported that the shoot lasted a full academic year.

“What we tried to do is construct the film along the lines of this paradox: Is it a documentary? Is it a fiction?,” Cantet told Ciment.

Among the films Cantet made after “The Class” were “Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang” (2013), a tale of protofeminist revolt based on a Joyce Carol Oates novel; “L’Atelier” (“The Workshop”) (2017), about a writing workshop in the south of France, in which he again dealt with France’s social fractures; and “Arthur Rambo” (2021), about the self-destruction of a promising young man from the immigrant suburbs.

Laurent Cantet was born April 11, 1961, in the small town of Melle, in western France, and grew up in Niort, another town in that region. He traced his love of film to the monthly screenings organized by his father, Jean, at the school where he and his mother, Madeleine (Ciach) Cantet, both taught.

He graduated from the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques in Paris in 1986, and before making his own films, he worked as an assistant on Marcel Ophuls’ 1994 documentary about war correspondents, “The Troubles We’ve Seen.”

One of Cantet’s favorite quotations, his producer Caroline Benjo said in a tribute to him on the radio station France Culture, was from director Jean Renoir: “Everyone is more or less right.”

Cantet is survived by his wife, Isabelle (Coursin) Cantet; his daughter, Marie; his son, Félix; his father; and his brother, Philippe.

His films were what the French call “socially committed,” without being didactic or ideological. His remarks about “The Class” could apply to his other films as well.

“I don’t pretend to a documentary exactitude,” he told Ciment. “The situation we are showing is very complex, and full of contradictions. There are no good guys and bad guys.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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