The idea of French filmmaking still brings to mind images of fiercely middle-class adults loitering in cafes, musing on life, frequently philandering and always talking, talking, talking.
There is certainly plenty of talking in filmmaker Laurent Cantet’s “The Class,” winner of the prestigious Palm d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and France’s submission to the Academy Awards for the best foreign language Oscar. Rather than slickly bourgeois adults, however, the action focuses quite specifically on the classroom interactions between a high school teacher and his unruly, multicultural roster of young charges, presenting the face of the future of France.
In focusing on a single class, filled with kids from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, captured with a documentary immediacy, the film finds a snapping, pinging rhythm to present the classroom sequences, a seesaw balance between creative chaos and genuine disorder. Perhaps never before has a film been able to wring such drama from diagraming sentences and discussing the fine points of proper verb tenses.
Cantet -- who explored the societal microcosms of the family, in “Time Out” (2001), and the factory, in “Human Resources” (1999) -- found the catalyst for “The Class” while promoting his previous film, 2005’s “Heading South.”
He appeared on a radio show, and one of the other guests was Francois Begaudeau, promoting “Entre les Murs,” his book on his years as a high school teacher.
After the broadcast, Cantet explained he was working on a film script along similar lines, and Begaudeau told him to read the book and get back to him.
“I read the book that night,” Cantet said recently in Los Angeles, “and was really torn between loving every sentence -- the energy, the funny dialogues he wrote -- and at the same time I had anxiety because I realized the point of view he had was something I would never have by myself.”
“So we met and I proposed not to make a real adapta- tion of the book, I proposed to make an extension of the book, using the way the book had been done to give flesh to the film, the documentary spirit of it.”
Cantet and his usual co-writer, Robin Capillo (who also edits Cantet’s films), worked on a script that followed Cantet’s original idea -- played out in the film as the story line of a troubled student named Souleymane -- all the while seeking advice and guidance from Begaudeau.
And as it turns out, Begaudeau was the perfect choice to play the teacher.
“The teacher required an actor who would really know the job of teaching and also someone who could be a sort of accomplice,” Cantet said. “He is not only acting in the film, he is also directing the scenes from the inside.”
To populate the classroom, Cantet and his collaborators found a school and asked for volunteers. Starting with about 50 kids, they narrowed it to the 25 who appear in the film. Then for a year the kids would meet every day after school to workshop their characters, explore dialogues and situations and help to mold the film’s story line.
“The Class” is the first of Cantet’s films shot on digital video. To allow the exchanges between Begaudeau and the students to flow, Cantet had three cameras running at once, one on the teacher, one on the students and one to capture anything else on the fly. Sometimes Cantet would allow individual takes to go on for more than 20 minutes.
At the end of shooting the film, he had 150 hours of footage that took four months to edit.
“I was sure all the technical stuff, all the setup of a 35-millimeter film wouldn’t work,” Cantet said of his unconventional shooting method. “I think what was important for me was to respect the energy of all the exchanges and to be able to shoot in very long takes, leaving the children time to sometimes forget what we were doing and come back to it later.”
Cantet expressed surprise at having won the Palm d’Or. His film beat out entries by such high-profile filmmakers as Clint Eastwood, Steven Soderbergh and Wim Wenders for one of the most valued prizes on the festival circuit.
The infectious excitement that came from seeing the cast join Cantet on stage while accepting the award was hard to deny. It seemed a fitting celebration of the film, as well as the future of French culture that the film foreshadowed.
“What I was most excited about,” Cantet said, “what pleased me the most, was we were all together, the children were there, the teachers, a big part of the crew. This film for me was a real creation of teamwork, and I couldn’t imagine receiving the Palm by myself. And they really enjoyed the moment. I think I was more happy for them than for me.
“And for that moment, to anyone watching on TV, they were the image of France.”