Marrakech Film Festival: Interview with Laurent Cantet

The ICS sat down with Jury member Laurent Cantet and talked to him about the current state of world cinema as exemplified by the selection of debut and sophomore films here in competition at the Marrakech International Film Festival. We also discussed his latest film The Workshop, his political commitment as a director, Marcel Ophüls and his collaboration with Robin Campillo. ~ Cédric Succivalli and Federica Polidoro

FP:  What are your general impressions on the Festival so far and your personal experience as a jury member here?

LC:  What I find particularly successful with this Festival is that at the same time it presents debut and second features in comp that are real discoveries and also gives you the opportunity to meet Martin Scorsese or Robert De Niro or Guillermo del Toro who all come here to give master classes. Yesterday I was talking with a Moroccan female producer and she was telling me she was expecting a lot from this very festival and that the new shape the festival was taking this year seemed to her to be very promising for the local production, too.

FP:  What influence did Marcel Ophüls have on you as a director?

LC:  I was his assistant for a few months on The Troubles We’ve Seen: A History of Journalism in Wartime. That was very exciting because I could see him at work and while he was in the editing room. I witnessed him paying special attention to the editing process: I was very impressed by the uncompromising way he was fighting to really get where he intended to. For instance, he stayed in the editing room for over a year and he never let it go, because he really wanted to chisel the slightest detail and that was an immense lesson for me to learn. When you are a director, you should never lose that very will. You must do the films that you really want to do but above all the way you want to do them.

FP:  Your political commitment plays an important part in your films, be it in Human Resources, The Class or even in The Workshop. Can you elaborate on that?

LC:  The films I want to see as a spectator and those I want to do as a director are those that question us on the state of the world. For that matter my films raise a lot of questions, but unfortunately I don’t necessarily have any answers to give. But what really captivates me with cinema is when we find good reasons to think all together on a project, so let’s go for it. I don’t like the films that take me by the hand and tell me here is how you should understand things. And thus each time I work I try to have that complexity.

CS:  As regards The Workshop, that has just been released in the UK. It is sadly a very timely film when dealing with far-right politics, and a fascinating one, I have to say. What do you think about that society you are describing and the radicalization of politics everywhere in the world, and how do you see our society evolve?

LC:  The film shows a young man who gives in to the temptations of far-right extremism, and at the same time, I don’t have the impression that there is a deeply rooted commitment on his part. I think that what is happening nowadays is that we’re dealing with a lot of young people who do not have any perspective whatsoever and to whom our world doesn’t offer any future, and that this creates the perfect breeding ground for all forms of political extremism, be it the far right like in my film or also jihadism for others. The film tries to depict the very mechanisms of seduction of these political movements. I also wanted to say that if these young persons were less subject to boredom, if they were more taken into account by our society, surely they wouldn’t fall into these traps.

CS:  When one confronts The Workshop with André Téchiné’s The Innocents, shot in the same region three decades ago, we cannot but face an admission of failure when it comes to the state of our youth.

LC:  What the film tries to say, and which is of paramount importance to me, is that the only hope we can have will be gained through culture. These young persons we see in The Workshop, because first of all they are gathered around a table and they are going to discuss, to exchange ideas, points of view, to listen to one another and above all they are going to have to create something together. And I think that even the lead male character, Antoine, who at first is very reluctant when it comes to participating in the workshop, who feels in any case at the margins of that group, is going to learn how to know himself progressively, learn how to listen to others, and he will emerge from it even stronger than ever before.

CS:  The complexity of the relationship between Antoine and the character played by Marina Fois, a famous Parisian writer and the workshop coordinator, is undoubtedly one of the film’s many strengths because you never give set answers and you always allow your characters to grow through their interactions. How did Marina Fois work with these young (unprofessional) actors? Were there a lot of rehearsals?

LC:  We did extensive rehearsals for a long while with these young actors because the casting process was very long. Each time I met a new actor who really caught my attention, I would ask the other young actors who had already been cast to come along and check whether the chemistry between them could work or not.

We then did rehearsals for three weeks altogether prior to the beginning of the shooting and Marina Fois arrived for the very last week since she was busy on another shoot before. I was interested at first in “exploiting” the fact that Marina had more or less the same status as her character in the film, namely someone coming from Paris and who is a famous person with a strong personality. But that distance I hoped to see and exploit between them and the young cast, I had to recreate because it turned out that within three days of knowing each other they had already become friends.

FP:  How did the Palme d’or change your life, if it did? It was the first French one after 21 years!

LC:  The Palme d’or was a terrific moment to live, to start with. It was an immense surprise for everybody. The film had screened on the eve of the Palmarès. And we didn’t have the time to feel the surge of the film. And of course the pleasure was to be able to live these emotions with all the teenage actors and all the teachers who were here. As for whether it changed something for me, well it enabled me to do my next film more easily: Foxfire, a film shot in Canada, that cost more than all my previous films,

FP:  What do you think of the current cinema panorama and of the new Mexican Film Wave, for instance?

LC:  I am extremely happy to be at this festival precisely because we have the possibility to see debut and second features and we realize the vitality of young directors today. There are, for instance, two Mexican films out of the 14 we will be seeing in competition and I think it is very significant for a production that is always on the lookout, goes in all possible directions, that produces at the same time big budget films and much more experimental ones. It’s very exciting to discover and witness such a richness.

FP:  What do you have to say, as a director, about the current discourse on immigration? Was that theme reflected in the films you’ve seen so far?

LC:  So far, in the films we’ve seen, immigration hasn’t been an important topic, but i do think it’s a subject we have to look right in the face and I’m happy that cinema does it. Cinema is also a way to think about the world. In fact, yes, we did see one film dealing with immigration that comes from Austria (Editor’s note: Joy by Sudabeh Mortezai). But I’m obviously not allowed to talk about it since it is in competition. Unfortunately, I think immigration is THE subject of the moment because it raises the question of how can we cohabit, live together in such a complex world. How are we going to succeed in dealing with this immigration that is the unfortunate direct product of poorly handled decolonization, climate change and quite a few other things we are going to be obliged to take into consideration. There is primarily a question of humanity and dignity. When I see how the political powers in France, and even moreso in Italy where it’s tougher, are treating people who risked their lives to arrive here, it literally brings tears to my eyes. I have a very emotional personal engagement on this topic. And if there is ONE cause I’m ready to fight for, that’s the one.

CS:  A last question on your long collaboration with Robin Campillo (Editor’s note: the director of 120 BPM and screenplay writer and editor on most of Cantet’s films). Your tandem is one of the most creative and successful ones in the French industry in the past couple of decades. Any project together in the near future?

LC:  It’s getting more and more complicated to find time to pursue that collaboration. I have just finished writing a new screenplay without him because he has just been writing his, too. Nonetheless, as soon as I finished my first draft, he was the very first reader and he sent me the first pages of his new project and we discussed it extensively, too. And I hope this collaboration will continue. There are 25 years of, shall I say, “community” and even if our films are very different one from the other, we do have a way to think of the world and cinema that is pretty similar and thus we often have to talk to each other to find out what the other is going to think about this or that topic. And also Robin (Campillo) had been the editor on all my films till The Workshop. And when I offered him to edit The Workshop he was editing his own film (120 BPM), so he couldn’t do it. We are turning a page somehow but we are leaving the door open nevertheless.

Laurent Cantet