High-minded, progressive and literate, Laurent Cantet made a trio of brilliant films | Peter Bradshaw

Estimated read time 4 min read

Laurent Cantet was a classic product of the French cinema industry: a deeply intelligent, high-minded progressive film-maker of the same generation as Robin Campillo and Dominik Moll whose supremely literate, emotionally committed, stylish and well-acted movies aspired to address French and European society at all levels.

Cantet made films that you could imagine being discussed around a gregarious dinner table of fashionable Parisians, with glasses being avidly drained and refilled all round – in fact, you could imagine Cantet himself talking about his work at just this kind of gathering.

His most famous film, maybe his masterpiece, was Entre les Murs, or The Class, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2008 – an idealistic young teacher reaches out to a diverse class of underprivileged kids. It was based on an autobiographical novel by a former teacher, François Bégaudeau. Cantet boldly cast Bégaudeau himself as the teacher – matching the nonprofessional teens playing his class – and he was an unshowy triumph, perhaps indicating that all teachers are actors playing a role in front of the most difficult audience imaginable.

The Class.View image in fullscreen

Cantet took this cliched idea of the inspirational schoolteacher and gave it a new muscular force, as the teacher is finally forced to debate sexual politics with the pupils outside in the schoolyard. With the lucidity of his direction and the urgency and integrity of the performances, this really was a gripping film, much praised at the time on his home turf for having won the Palme d’Or for France for the first time since Maurice Pialat’s Under the Sun of Satan in 1987. But Cantet also lived long enough to see The Class dismissed as white-saviourism, and this was a kind of de haut en bas liberal cinema which became unfashionable.

My favourites of his films are the two earlier ones, his dramas of the workplace. His 1999 debut, Human Resources, was about a young college grad from a modest background on a management trainee scheme at a firm where his position among the white-collar officer class gives him access to the information that this firm is going to lay off many on the shop floor – including his own dad.

Cantet’s follow-up film, L’Emploi du Temps (Time Out), looked again at the tristesse in white-collar leaders of France’s financial and service industries, and Cantet cast that great and underused French actor Aurélien Recoing as his dreary antihero. This is a mesmerically brilliant drama about Vincent, a middle-management salaryman who is made redundant but, too ashamed to tell his wife, goes off to “work” every day in his suit, hanging around office lobbies all day where he pretends to know people, waves to non-acquaintances; he becomes a ghost in the soulless machine of work and then drifts into improvising a criminal scheme. (It is based on a true-crime case, also fictionalised in film by Nicole Garcia in 2002 as The Adversary, although Cantet’s version was better and subtler.) Perhaps, for all his delusional wretchedness, Vincent is the one person who can really see how empty a work-based life is and how fallacious it is to need work to fill the hours.

Cantet again found a subject to challenge bourgeois sensibilities of left and right in his Vers le Sud (Heading South) in 2005, in which Charlotte Rampling plays an imperiously unafraid sensualist who buys sex in Haiti from young black men and is contemptuous of those timid romantics and self-pitying men and women who forbid pleasures to themselves and others. It is a forthright film, though a little naive.

skip past newsletter promotion

Perhaps Cantet found his inspiration most truly in the workplace and the quotidian reality of people’s working lives, rather than the more contrived pieces, such as his reasonable but uninspired English-language girl-gang movie Foxfire in 2012, derived from Joyce Carol Oates, or his solidly theatrical Cuban reunion drama Return to Ithaca (2014), about four old left-ist comrades meeting again in Havana, and sheepishly coming to terms with an outmoded ideology. There was a slightly laboured social-media talking point, Arthur Rambo (2021), based on a true story. I have to admit to being dismayed by his implausible and contrived film The Workshop (2017).

But in Human Resources, Time Out and The Class, Cantet made a trio of brilliant films about contemporary life: realist, engaged, compassionate.

Source: theguardian.com

You May Also Like

More From Author