Laurent Cantet has died at 63: his films explored the undersides of France

Laurent Cantet, an eminent director who made insightful films about the thorny aspects of French life and society, died on April 25 in Paris. He was 63 years old.

His writer and editor, Robin Campillo, said he died of cancer in hospital.

Cantet's best-known film was “Entre les Murs” (“The Class”), which won the Palme d'Or, the top prize of the Cannes Film Festival, in 2008 and was nominated for an Oscar as best film in foreign language. “The Class” was something new in French cinema: an extended snapshot of the interior of a school classroom in a working-class neighborhood of Paris, using a real-life former teacher and real-life schoolchildren and walking a provocative line between documentary and fiction. .

This ambiguity infuses the film with a rare tension, as a hapless language teacher struggles with his mostly immigrant students, trying (with difficulty) to gain their acceptance of the rigid rules of the French language and French identity. In this candid chronicle of school life, the students, many of them from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia – brilliant, sometimes defiant – have the upper hand.

Along the way, Cantet surgically exposes the fault lines in France's faltering attempts at integration, showing exactly where the country's rigid model is often impervious to the experience of its non-native citizens. Reviewing “The Class” in the New York Times, Manohla Dargis called it “artistic, intelligent” and “urgently needed.”

The film hit a nerve in France, selling more than a million tickets. Right-wing intellectuals such as Alain Finkielkraut denounced him for devaluing classical French culture, unintentionally underlining Cantet's point.

Mr Cantet was invited to the Elysée Palace to discuss the film with President Nicolas Sarkozy. He refused the invitation. “I will not talk about diversity with someone who invented the Ministry of National Identity,” Cantet said at the time, referring to one of Sarkozy's most unfortunate initiatives.

That film, and a handful of others in Cantet's short career: “Ressources Humaines” (“Human Resources”), “L'Emploi du Temps” (“Time Out”), “Vers le Sud” (“Heading South”) – worried about the alienation of those caught in the inevitable traps of modern life under late-stage capitalism.

The tense and restless “Human Resources,” published in 1999, places an economics graduate in a human resources internship at the factory where his factory worker father is about to be fired. Two years later, “Time Out” depicted an unemployed office worker who hides his shameful unemployment with disastrous results.

“Mr. Cantet's film is too sophisticated to demonize these women, whose relationships with their young lovers are more tender and nurturing than overtly crass,” Holden wrote.

In an email, Rampling wrote: “All the locations were outdoors and the weather was so unpredictable that we were never sure from one day to the next whether we would be able to shoot or how we would proceed. We kept stopping and starting again, causing Laurent great tension and anxiety throughout the shoot.

The film, he added, “is imperfect, but it is still an excellent work by an honorable and good man.”

In these films, as in “The Class,” Cantet questioned the fundamental structures that constitute the fabric of modern life. What interested him in “The Class”, he told the newspaper Libération in 2008, were “the moments in which the class transforms into a school for democracy and, sometimes, into a school for the school itself. What are we doing here? Why we are here?”

A soft-spoken director who stood back and listened and who was uninterested in the glitz of cinema, Mr. Cantet was haunted by the last two questions, in a classic French tradition that dates back to Camus and Montaigne.

Campillo, who was the screenwriter and editor of all of Cantet's major films, said the director's predilection for non-professional actors was “not just a question of naturalism.”

“It was about working with people who, through cinema, discovered something about themselves,” he said. Mr. Cantet, he added, was “very modest. He put himself on the same level as his crew.

In an interview with French film critic Michel Ciment after winning the Palme d'Or, Cantet described the almost improvisational method he developed for “The Class,” in which the teacher, the film's central figure, was played by the author of the novel on which the film is based.

“I developed a minimum of dialogue, to indicate the energy we needed, the attitude of each one,” he said. “At the beginning of each scene, I gave them directions, so they had something to work with, and then we went to work with something much more constructed.”

Ms. Dargis reported that filming lasted an entire academic year.

“What we tried to do is build the film along the lines of this paradox: is it a documentary? Is it a fiction?” Mr. Cantet told Mr. Ciment.

The films Cantet made after “The Class” include “Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang” (2013), a story of proto-feminist revolt based on a novel by Joyce Carol Oates; “L’Atelier,” from 2017, about a writing workshop in the south of France, in which she again addressed France’s social fractures; and “Arthur Rambo” (2021), about the self-destruction of a promising young man from the immigrant suburbs.

Laurent Cantet was born on April 11, 1961 in the small town of Melle in western France and grew up in Niort, another town in that region. He traced his love of cinema to the monthly screenings organized by his father, Jean, at the school where his father and mother, Madeleine (Ciach) Cantet, both taught.

Laurent graduated from the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques in Paris in 1986 and, before making his own films, was an assistant on Marcel Ophuls' 1994 documentary about war correspondents, “The Troubles We've Seen.”

One of Mr. Cantet's favorite quotes, his producer Caroline Benjo said in a tribute to the France Culture radio station, was from the director Jean Renoir: “Everyone is more or less right.”

Mr. Cantet is survived by his wife, Isabelle (Coursin) Cantet; his daughter, Marie Cantet; his son, Félix; his father; and his brother Philip.

His films were what the French call “socially engaged” without being didactic or ideological. His observations about “The Class” could also apply to his other films.

“I don't claim documentary accuracy,” he told Mr. Ciment. “The situation we are showing is very complex and full of contradictions. There are no good and bad guys.”

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