Monday, May 26, 2008

Class Trip

A surprise from Cannes, which I haven't been blogging on for the very good reason that I'm not there; the host country got its first Palme d'Or since Maurice Pialat's Sous le soleil de Satan in 1987. The winner was Laurent Cantet for Entre les murs (known in English as The Class) an adaptation of Parisian teacher and Cahiers du Cinéma critic François Bégaudeau's novel of two years ago. The film was only admitted to competition at the very end of April, and though Cantet is a well-respected filmmaker, known for his lucid and even-handed approach to social themes, I found his last film Vers le sud, about sex tourism practised by women in Duvalier's Haiti, muddled and mechanical. Cantet had the stroke of genius (not to mention the nerve) to get Bégaudeau himself to play the role of the teacher. The cast is also made up of non-professional teenage actors (I hesitate to call them 'real-life students' as many media have - what else could teenage actors be, after all). In a nice touch, Cantet brought 28 of them along to the Croisette, where they predictably made quite a racket.

I thoroughly enjoyed Bégaudeau's book but I was sceptical both of its potential for film material and for its prospects of translation into English or any other language, given that much of the humour and the ideas extrapolated in it derive from the tension between the offical language of the French classroom and the reinvention of it by the urban, mostly Arab and African, teenagers. But I'm coming around to the idea of watching the film now, not least because it is likely to be a pleasing change from bleeding-heart feelgood films about educating the urban masses. If anything, it looks similar to the classroom scenes in season four of The Wire, albeit with less violence and crime.

Though some of my own favourite contemporary directors, Lucrecia Martel, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and the Dardenne brothers were also in competition (and Ceylan apart, they all went away empty-handed) it is good to see French cinema back on the podium. Along with Abdelkettif Kechiche's La graine et le mulet, Entre les murs is evidence of life in the French film industry, which is all too often dismissed by lazy, misinformed pundits as being talky, cerebral and pretentious. The best summation of the film, which was unanimously rewarded by the jury, was from the splendidly imperious Marjane Satrapi, a Grand Jury prizewinner last year, and juror this year: "There's almost nothing I believe in anymore, but I believe that culture and education give us the opportunity to be less stupid. It's always better to be less stupid than more stupid." I'll go with 'less stupid' too. Here's the film's trailer (no subtitles, sorry):

And well done to Steve McQueen on the Caméra d'Or for Hunger; though I don't think the world really needs another film about the Troubles McQueen's video work has always been compelling and I look forward to seeing his step up to feature making.