- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

Laurent Cantet takes a long pause when asked which of his fellow filmmakers working today he most admires. “There are a lot,” he finally answers, unwilling to throw out a name.

There’s no such hesitancy when he’s asked who has most influenced his own work, though — he immediately responds with one name, Roberto Rossellini.

“His relationship to the society, the way he mixed very documentary aspects and sometimes even melodramatic situations, I feel really close to him. And the fact that a story is not always linear. It shows the complexity of the world more than trying to solve the questions.”

That’s a perfect description of Mr. Cantet’s own career and particularly his latest film. “The Class” (“Entre les murs”) is up for a foreign-language Oscar this weekend and already has won perhaps the film world’s most prestigious prize, the Palme d’Or at Cannes. “Ressources humaines” won the filmmaker best debut at the Cesar Awards (the French Oscars) in 2001. Mr. Cantet followed that exploration of the workplace with another about a man’s relationship with his job, “L’emploi du temps,” and then “Vers le sud,” about middle-aged, female sexual tourists in Haiti.

The 47-year-old filmmaker has always focused his sharp lens on the very real way people face social conflicts, but he’s hit a particularly tender nerve with “The Class.” The film, based on an autobiographical novel by teacher Francois Begaudeau, follows a racially diverse group of inner-city Paris students over the course of a year as they struggle to learn to fit into a society they don’t feel welcomes them.

Mr. Cantet, speaking sometimes through a translator and sometimes in English during a stop in the District last year, is the son of two teachers. “Very early on, I was sensitive to the importance of school and methods. What really interested me was the idea that school could become a kind of microcosm that could represent all of society,” he says.

These students, 14 and 15 years old, were also at a “decisive” moment in life he always wanted to film.

“I’m very sensitive to the vitality of these adolescents, the vitality they can exert. I’m also touched by their immaturity. I feel it gives a kind of spontaneity to what happens that’s great to watch.”

In fact, Mr. Cantet captured that spontaneity on film by developing the script partly through improvisations after working with the students — all nonprofessional actors — in workshops over the course of a school year. It didn’t just serve his film’s look, which is extraordinarily real; it also served his own purpose, too.

“I also wanted to give a different image of this youth that’s very stigmatized. You always have the feeling that these young people are dangerous because they’re very lively, that they’re dumb, incapable of concentrating or thinking in the long term. I wanted to do justice to them, but showing them and really looking at them.”

In fact, this group of Paris students stuck with the project through a year of workshopping and filming, surprising even their own teachers — who were jealous that Mr. Cantet could so capture their attention. “I didn’t have to teach them anything. So I had the best role,” he says with a laugh.

The film was released in France last year and sparked a great number of newspaper articles and debates, which is exactly what Mr. Cantet set out to do. “We were trying to show the class like a school of democracy, a place where people try to learn together, try to understand each other, though it’s not easy sometimes,” he says. “The problem in France, I think we have such a high idea of what our culture is that it’s very difficult for us to accept new elements in that culture. And for me, culture is something that really changes every day. Culture is what people live. Those kids are also building our culture. That’s what a lot of people have problems accepting.”

He adds, “It’s a French problem; it’s a problem around the world.”

“The Class” is almost universally acclaimed, but not everyone is a fan of the film’s realism. “The teachers sometimes react a little bit hard to the film. I think some of them don’t want to show this reality to the parents,” he says. “They’re afraid of what people will think of what they’re doing.”

It’s not just parents who are seeing schools in a new way — so are students. Mr. Cantet notes that students at question-and-answer sessions for the film pointed out it was the first time they could listen to teachers speaking to one another. “Teachers were just superadults who were in front of them in front of the classroom and teaching them things. They would say, ‘Teachers speaking together, that’s very strange. And even stranger, they’re speaking of us,’” he says with a laugh. “It helps them see the teachers and the system as a human system.”

Kelly Jane Torrance

‘Fanboys’ go mainstream

Hollywood has seen the future, and it belongs to the fanboys.

“It’s the fanboy culture that’s kind of dictating a lot of what Hollywood is doing,” says Kyle Newman, director of the new comedy “Fanboys.”

“Look at the top movies the past 30 years, and they all kind of come from the sci-fi, cult genre. ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Batman’ — it’s all people that are into comic books and genre/sci-fi.”

His new film is a love letter to the fanboy, that fickle creature who dominates the Internet’s discussion of the movie industry and obsessively argues over the minutiae of his favorite films with fellow travelers.

The fanboy demographic is expanding, Mr. Newman argues.

“I think it’s easy to comedically slag them off and reduce them to a stereotype,” he says, “but I think the movies that are doing so well are gravitating toward more of that type of product because that group, the fanboy, is incredibly diverse and almost beyond defining.”

He points to the crossover appeal of “The Dark Knight” as proof.

Fanboys themselves rallied to the defense of Mr. Newman’s film: When execs at the Weinstein Co. tried to wrestle away control of the film, the blogosphere exploded in rage.

“The fans got involved, which was kind of surprising — a little scary at first, but [it] ultimately had that positive effect on the outcome,” he says. “It was just a great feeling to see other fans getting behind it,… knowing that people kind of had our back online — strangers, fans just sticking together. It was encouraging.”

The result is arguably the most fanboy-friendly movie to grace the big screen in recent years. Now it’s time to see if they will put their money where their blogposts are.

Sonny Bunch

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