Perhaps because movies are widely regarded above all as a form of leisure, there has always been a relative dearth of films about work. The activity that consumes the better part of our waking lives is typically downplayed or elided in cinematic fictions, which is why the few movies that put work and the workplace front and center often have such a bracing effect.
Case in point: the films of the French director Laurent Cantet, whose latest feature, "The Class," was the surprise winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and a best foreign-language film nominee at this year's Oscars.
"The Class," which arrives on DVD this week in both standard-definition and Blu-ray editions ($28.96 and $39.95 respectively, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment), is the most vibrant example of Cantet's realist, humanist cinema, as perceptive about interpersonal relationships as it is about economic systems.
In Cantet's first feature, "Human Resources" (1999, Kino DVD), an ambitious young man (Jalil Lespert), fresh out of business school, takes a job at the small-town factory where his father has toiled on the assembly line for decades. A tussle between labor and management over the 35-hour work week and a round of proposed layoffs becomes entangled with the Oedipal conflict between father and son.
Cantet shot in an actual factory in Normandy and used improvisational methods with his cast of nonprofessionals, drawn from local workers, bosses and organizers. Fashioning a compelling human drama from the minutiae of board meetings and union negotiations, "Human Resources" is attuned both to the daily rituals of work and to its larger meaning in people's lives.
With "Time Out" (2001, Miramax DVD), Cantet shifted his gaze from blue-collar work to white-collar unemployment, spinning an existential parable from the axiom that you are what you do. The film is loosely based on the actual case of a Frenchman who spent most of his adult life pretending to be a doctor and, on the verge of being exposed, killed his family and himself.
But Cantet and his regular co-writer, Robin Campillo, strip out the tabloid sensationalism, instead creating an everyman hero, Vincent (Aurelien Recoing), a nondescript fortysomething who treats the loss of his middle-management job as an unexpected liberation.
Vincent invents a new identity for himself as a U.N. bureaucrat. As he weaves an increasingly elaborate fiction (not least among the film's ironies, it takes a lot of work to stay out of work), "Time Out" offers glimpses into the shame of unemployment, the pleasure of idleness and the alienation of modern labor.
Cantet's third feature, "Heading South" (2005, out of print but available through Netflix), is something of an anomaly, a melodrama about female sex tourists in '70s Haiti, with Charlotte Rampling heading a group of middle-aged spinsters on the prowl for local youngsters.
"The Class," which follows a Parisian high school teacher and his class over the course of an academic year, is a return both to form and to familiar territory, an even more productive blend of documentary and fiction than "Human Resources."
A loose adaptation of an "autobiographical novel" by Francois Begaudeau, a former public-school teacher, the film stars Begaudeau as a character named Francois; the students, who all attend the same school in a racially diverse working-class neighborhood of Paris, are also playing versions of themselves. (The characters and situations emerged from a series of workshops that Cantet held before the shoot.)
Its French title, "Entre les murs," translates as "Between These Walls," and "The Class" stays within the confines of the school, which, as in almost all classroom movies, is meant as a microcosm of society in which prevailing tensions and inequalities are crystallized.
Unlike so many other movie pedagogues, Francois is far from perfect. He's a committed and inventive teacher, but he doesn't always say the right thing. His students aren't always inspired or enlightened. They know how to push his buttons, and he's not above lashing back.
But Cantet, whose parents were teachers, clearly believes in the classroom as a living experiment in democracy. And Francois is another one of this progressive filmmaker's relatable heroes: a man who comes to life though his relationship to his work.