/ 26 May 2008

Emotional Cannes triumph for French classroom film

The director of Entre les Murs, the French classroom drama that won the main Cannes film prize said on Sunday he had been deeply moved by the applause that met the film when it was shown at the festival.

Entre les Murs (The Class) became the first French film in 21 years to claim the coveted Palme d’Or award at the world’s biggest film festival after captivating the notoriously picky audience of film industry insiders and journalists.

The film and its cast of non-professional, mainly teenaged actors from the tough Paris school where the film was set were given a prolonged standing ovation at its first official screening on Saturday. ”It was a moment of enormous emotion,” Laurent Cantet told Reuters in an interview a few hours before jury president Sean Penn gave the prize to what he called ”an extraordinary film”.

”The great force of the film is the energy and faith they put into it and the warmth of the reception yesterday in Cannes is in large part down to that,” Cantet said.

The film, based on an autobiographical novel by Francois Begaudeau, who also plays the central role, comes at a time when the problems in France’s often overcrowded schools have been highlighted by strikes and protests by teachers and pupils.

With memories of the 2005 riots in poor, multi-ethnic suburbs around many French cities still vivid, the film also taps into a wider debate about the place of young people of immigrant background in French society.

‘Tact and finesse’

Entre les Murs reflects many of the issues that have dominated French headlines in recent months, from police campaigns to arrest illegal immigrants to literacy and language worries affecting some immigrant children.

But it never labours the issues, treating them instead as part of the everyday background of life in today’s France and taking great pains to avoid the kind of cliches familiar from generations of classroom dramas.

”The best way to avoid all that is to recreate situations in all their complexity,” Begaudeau told Reuters.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy issued a statement congratulating the filmmakers for the ”tact and finesse” with which they had tackled both the problems in French schools and the efforts of teachers and pupils.

The film, shot in a naturalistic style that gives it the look of a fly-on-the-wall documentary, is notable for the authentic and energetic performances of its young cast.

”I think teenagers are natural actors,” Begaudeau said. ”It’s a time in life where you act a lot naturally.”

”It’s a generation that’s been shaped by rap. Rap is about talking back and showing off in a way that’s quite aware that it’s showing off. It’s about who’s the sharpest, who’s the quickest,” he said.

But Cantet said they seemed to have been surprised by what they had achieved when they saw their work for the first time.

”They saw it last week. I’d expected to have a very rowdy showing, with everyone laughing at each other. That lasted five minutes and then suddenly it stopped,” he said.

”I think they felt that the film talked about them, about their world and they had the feeling that they’d done something important and it wasn’t just an enjoyable period that we’d spent together but that they’d done something special.” – Reuters 2008