Laurent Cantet obituary

Laurent Cantet obituary

The social-realist boom in 1990s French cinema produced compelling new voices such as Jacques Audiard, Bruno Dumont and Érick Zonca. The most humane and rigorous of that group was Laurent Cantet, who has died aged 63 after suffering from cancer.

Cantet, who often worked in an improvisatory mode with non-professional actors, won the Cannes film festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, for his education drama The Class (Entre les Murs, 2008). Sean Penn, president of that year’s Cannes jury, called the film “a miracle, a perfect movie, just so exciting to see. We walked into the jury room afterward and it was like we had swept up the floor and our work was done.”

A kind of Parisian Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, it was arrived at by cross-pollinating drama and documentary to create what Cantet called “documented fiction”. François Bégaudeau, author of the autobiographical novel Entre les Murs (Between the Walls, 2006), on which the film is based, plays a version of himself: an enthusiastic inner-city teacher who inspires his adolescent pupils but also crosses swords with them.

In one scene, François is taken to task over his use of anglicised names in his mathematical exercises: Bill has 12 apples, Bob has three, but what about, say, Rachid or Aïssata? This playful scene plants the seed for one of the film’s main themes – the use of language to gain leverage, and to reshape the world.

THE CLASS ; ENTRE LES MURSLAURENT CANTET, French director of the film ‘THE CLASS ; ENTRE LES MURS’ (2008) on 24 May 2008.View image in fullscreen

The movie’s sharp-eyed visual style lends these semantic wrangles a strong cinematic dimension. Shooting on location with three high-definition cameras, Cantet achieved an omniscient documentary effect. “This gave us a lot of freedom, allowing us to improvise, to capture the energy of the pupils rather than interrupt them when we wanted a different angle,” he explained. The students and staff in the film, who were all drawn from Françoise Dolto junior high in the 20th arrondisement of Paris, generated many of the scenes in collaboration with Bégaudeau and Cantet.

The movie’s overall tone is one of bruised idealism. “It shows the richness of multiculturalism rather than its weaknesses,” said Cantet. “The film is utopian about the possibilities this kind of setting offers, but pessimistic about the school system in general.”

The Class received an Oscar nomination and became Cantet’s most successful film. But the three features that preceded it were more impressive, withholding even the smallest spoonful of sugar to help their messages go down.

He made his debut in 1999 with Human Resources (Ressources Humaines), in which a business-school graduate starts a management job at the factory where his father is a welder. The newcomer clashes with the union at first, then has a change of heart when he learns of planned redundancies.

That film, which the critic Ginette Vincendeau called “generous, sensitive and innovative”, addresses with Loachian fastidiousness the challenge of reconciling principles and productivity. Both Human Resources and Cantet’s 2001 follow-up, Time Out (L’emploi du Temps), explore how work defines us even in our most interior moments.

Time Out concerns the middle-aged, middle-class Vincent (Aurélien Recoing), who conceals his unemployment from his wife and children, and instead lets his days drip by in service stations and motel lobbies. To retain his role as breadwinner, he cheats cash out of gullible investors he meets on the road.

THE WORKSHOP; L’ATELIER (2017)MATTHIEU LUCCI Film ‘THE WORKSHOP; L’ATELIER’ (2017) Directed By LAURENT CANTET 22 May 2017 SAX93820 Allstar Picture Library/CANAL+ **WARNING** This Photograph is for editorial use only and is the copyright of CANAL+ and/or the Photographer assigned by the Film or Production Company & can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above Film. A Mandatory Credit To CANAL+ is required. The Photographer should also be credited when known. No commercial use can be granted without written authority from the Film Company. 1111z@yx abcde 6 18View image in fullscreen

The film was inspired by the case of Jean-Claude Romand, who lied about his non-existent job, and finally slaughtered his family. Cantet and his regular co-writer and editor Robin Campillo (who later became a director in his own right) stopped short of such horror. “We wanted him to have a disconcerting banality,” Cantet said. “He’s just someone who slips and trips down a certain pathway.”

Some audiences found a note of hope in the final scene, in which Vincent attends a job interview. Cantet was quick to scotch that reading. “The notion of work is so full of wealth and worthiness that the prospect of Vincent finding employment again is obviously a winner,” he said. “But not having a job can be of a certain wealth, too. For people like him, work can only be slavery, so to see the last scene as a happy ending is a denial.”

Heading South (Vers le Sud, 2005) applied Cantet’s usual scrutiny to a different milieu, albeit one still steeped in exploitation and commodification. Charlotte Rampling and Karen Young play sex tourists at a Haitian beach resort in the late 1970s who find themselves competing for the same 18-year-old gigolo (Ménothy Cesar). Neither woman is interested in the young man’s plight under the corrupt regime of President “Baby Doc” Duvalier, though eventually the country’s political strife eclipses their feud. The film has a starkly Fassbinderesque view of the intersection between sex, money and power.

Cantet was born in Melle, a town in western France, and raised in nearby Niort. His parents were both teachers. He attended university in Marseilles, then studied at the Paris film school IDHEC (L’Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques), where he met Campillo. Their first full-length collaboration, Les Sanguinaires (1997), was made for French television as part of a project looking ahead to the new millennium. (Human Resources was also made for TV, but earned an international cinema release.) Asked about the 13-year gap between graduating and directing Les Sanguinaires, he said: “I spent a long time trying to discover what I wanted to say in a film.”

L’EMPLOI DU TEMPS (FR 2001) AURELIEN RECOING Picture from the Ronald Grant Archive “time out” filmView image in fullscreen

Reactions to the movies he made after The Class were mixed. An adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s 1950-set novel Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (2012) met with muted acclaim. Return to Ithaca (2014), about a reunion of five friends in Havana, made few waves. It was Cantet’s second project in the city: he was one of seven directors who contributed to the portmanteau project 7 Days in Havana (2012). It was part-funded by Havana Club rum, which features prominently on screen.

His 2017 drama The Workshop (L’Atelier), about the relationship between a female teacher at a summer writing school and a male teenage student radicalised by the far right, revived the simmering tensions of Heading South, and represented a real return to form, though in fact the film had been gestating for more than 15 years. Cantet’s final picture, Arthur Rambo (2021), was inspired by the real-life case of Mehdi Meklat, and follows a young writer from the banlieues whose career is wrecked by offensive social media posts that predate his fame. He was working on a new film, The Apprentice, at the time of his death.

“My characters are never heroes,” Cantet said in 2008. “They always have weaknesses. That’s what motivates me to write them. They are people looking for their place in society: a place which is much harder to find when you don’t march in step with the rest of society. It’s something I can recognise in myself: keeping the world at arm’s length. Perhaps making films is a way of making up that distance.”