Psychiatrist with a camera: Laurent Cantet diagnosed modern France’s anxieties. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

Class act: the cinema of Laurent Cantet

The French filmmaker, who died in April, was a master at diagnosing modern anxieties
June 5, 2024

Summer 2024 and many eyes are on France. Paris, spruced up with new Metro stations and bike paths ahead of the Olympics, is looking glorious, a poster child for a forward-thinking nation. But outside the capital, across the countryside and in small towns, the picture is less rosy. What’s ailing the French? The cost of living, for sure, but most of all, both keenly and abstractly, a sense of insecurity that is cultural and social as much as economic. No filmmaker humanised these anxieties more thoughtfully or enthrallingly than Laurent Cantet, who died—from cancer, at the dismayingly young age of 63—in April.

Cantet started out in television: Un été a Beyrouth (1990) explores the Lebanese civil war as seen through the eyes of a child. Later, he worked with the great Marcel Ophuls on Veilées d’armes (1994) about the 1992 siege of Sarajevo. Human Resources (1999), his first theatrical feature, anticipated many of the debates around the gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) protests that broke out across France in 2018. Franck (played by Jalil Lespert) is a young man on the move, a university-educated idealist who returns to his hometown in Normandy to take up a summer internship at the same factory where his father has worked for 30 years. His task is to help implement a 35-hour working week that, he believes, will give the employees (all of them non-professional actors) more flexibility, but which their union reps, always distrustful of management, believe is a ruse.

Franck could be out of a 1950s Angry Young Man drama. He comes from blue-collar stock, but is now suspected of belonging to the boss class. He’s accused of being a snooty Parisian who looks down on the local yokels. He protests, but we sense his estrangement. How can his former schoolfriends put up with such dulling toil? Is the solidarity of which they speak that of prisoners? Why is his father so reluctant to shake things up? It takes a while for him to realise he’s being used by his own managers, and that, if there’s one thing human resource departments tend not to care about, it’s humans. Cold enlightenment indeed. The film ends with him asking a question to which Cantet returned throughout his career: “Where is your place?”

If there’s one thing human resource departments tend not to care about, it’s humans

Time Out (2001) is a contemporary ghost story about Vincent (Aurélien Recoing), a middle-aged consultant who can’t face telling his wife and children that he’s been fired from his job. He dresses as normal, pretends to go to work each day, sleeps in a car, gets involved in a crooked scheme. He’s bluff, brazen, full of plausible bullshit. Is that a reflection of him—or of the managerial elites among whom he has always worked? International commerce—especially in Africa—is meant to be Vincent’s area of expertise. Is that sphere as bloodlessly banal as it’s made out here? Through fog and snow he drives, across France and Switzerland, dissolving geographies. Within a few years, there was a global financial crisis. Millions of people grappled with life after work. Many are still doing so.

The French name for The Class, Cantet’s best known film and a Palme d’Or winner at Cannes in 2008, is Entre les murs—“Between the Walls”. Any carceral connotations are entirely intentional. It follows young teacher François (François Marin) as he begins a new job at a Parisian school most of whose students are the adolescent sons and daughters of working-class immigrants. They’re a handful: slumped, lippy, quick to mock him for being too old and too bourgie. He thinks of himself as being on their side, but their insolence is trying. One morning, a fresh-faced colleague storms into the staff room: “They’re nothing. They know nothing. They look through you when you try to teach them… They can stay in their shit. I’m not going to help them.”

The classroom is a microcosm of Paris, France and many major European cities. Some viewers may be alarmed by that notion. They may see what goes on there as dystopic—education where discipline and deference are almost impossible to sustain, where a national culture is on the wane. Cantet uses lots of close-ups and mid-shots to create a mood of intimacy that also veers towards clamminess: we could hug these pupils or, just as often, shake them. School films can often be sentimental. Behold! A charismatic eccentric connecting with troubled teenagers! There’s no such schmaltz here. It shows, with bracing clarity, François’s struggle to work out what his—and his students’—place is.