Human Resources portrays a young intern whose education has made upward mobility a possibility.
The Class portrays young multiethnic students who are very aware of their exclusion from France’s national identity.
Despite having to postpone filming for a year because of the fall of Aristide during the winter of 2004, Cantet insisted on filming part of Heading South in Haiti so that the story would have a specific location.
Actual union members portrayed the union workers on strike in Human Resources.
Human Resources: Jean Claude Vallod, who plays Franck’s father, had worked in various factories since the age of 14.
Time Out: Vincent travels to the UN building in Geneva and obtains informational brochures as part of his posturing.
Time Out: Livrozet plays the con man Jean Michel who enlists Vincent in selling black market goods.
Heading South: On the resort beach the women order sandwiches and sodas for the young Haitian men who romance them.
Heading South: In her confessional monologue, Sue reveals how she feels beautiful and loved in Haiti as compared to back home in Canada.
The Class: This rare outside shot of the 4e classroom highlights the bars on the windows.
The Class: Extreme close-ups of teacher and students place the audience inside the cramped space of the classroom.
The Class: This shot from within the middle of the class captures a power struggle in the class as the students taunt François.
The Class: After announcing that “People say that you like men,” Souleymane distances himself from the accusation while still demanding a reply from his teacher.
Laurent Cantet has emerged as a major film director in the last decade, writing and directing Ressources humaines/Human Resources (1999), Emploi du Temps/Time Out (2001), Vers le Sud/Heading South (2005), and Entre Les Murs/The Class (2008). His films have received both critical and popular attention in France and globally, winning numerous awards on the international and art-house festival circuits and attracting attention for the political relevance of his subject matter. Cantet describes his films as dealing with “how the nature of intimacy and private life is shaped by social issues and the way social issues are connected to private life,” which is revealed through their consistent engagement with the subjects of work, class, and leisure. [open endnotes in new window]
Film scholars Martin O’Shaughnessy in The New Face of Political Cinema and Will Higbee in “The Social-Realist Melodramas of Laurent Cantet” have included Cantet within a new generation of politically committed filmmakers in France. Following the massive public sector strikes in 1995, films addressing the changing socioeconomic conditions of the country began emerging in the late 1990s and 2000s. The term “New Realism” is loosely used to characterize these films that explore themes such as unemployment, immigration, and cultural exclusion and give voice to marginalized minorities. Unlike the films of other New Realist filmmakers, Cantet’s films portray people both at the margins and at the center of the economic system. Interestingly, each of Cantet’s four films portrays a different sector of the global economy: a working-class factory in Human Resources; a laid-off, middle-class consultant in Time Out; the tourist industry in the Third World in Heading South; and Parisian multi-ethnic immigrant students in France in The Class. A trajectory throughout all these films is their understanding of global capital—more specifically, of neoliberalism, the political and economic philosophy of free markets and free trade that dominated conventional wisdom in the late twentieth century.
Stylistically, Cantet’s films share traits with other “New Realist” films. To varying degrees in his different films, Cantet uses a naturalized mis-en-scene, shoots on location and improvises dialogue throughout the filming process. He provides basic guidelines or a rough script to the actors, they improvise, and then he re-writes the script including their improvisations. All of his films include both professional and non-professional actors. He states that some roles
New Realist films, however, do more than just “capture” reality. O’ Shaugnessy addresses the new use of melodrama in the contemporary context. While melodrama has typically not been used for radical purposes because of its focus on the individual and its emphasis on emotional involvement, O’Shaugnessy argues that its use is productive in the contemporary context because it “allows both for an acerbic critique of the individual and for a dramatization of the monstrosity of the current order.” Both O’Shaugnessy and Higbee highlight the elements of melodrama in Cantet’s films.
These elements are easily recognizable in Cantet’s first film, Human Resources (1999), which focuses on a working-class family in which the son has taken a management intern position at the manufacturing firm where his father has worked on the assembly line for thirty years. The son, Franck, wants to introduce the thirty-five hour workweek. The film’s release coincided with the government’s introduction of reduced working hours. Due to the timeliness of its theme, Human Resources attracted a large audience when it premiered on television on the night prior to being released in the theater as part of its co-production deal with Arte.
Stylistically, Human Resources uses the pseudo-documentary approach frequently employed by New Realist filmmakers. Aside from Jalil Lespert who plays Franck, the rest of the cast is non-professional. The mis-en-scene is largely naturalistic. The film was shot in actual locations with naturalized lighting and only diegetic sound. In narrative and setting, Human Resources focuses on the mundane, everyday world. The majority of the film takes place either at the modest working-class home of Franck’s parents or at the factory. There are numerous shots of the factory floor, including several long shots of Franck walking its length while surrounded by loud buzzing. Higbee notes that some elements of the mise-en-scene do take on symbolic weight, such as the bunk beds that have been placed in Frank’s old bedroom for the grandchildren indicating that he has “outgrown and been displaced from the working-class family home.”
Time Out (2001) further explores the stresses of the neoliberal workplace, simultaneously exploring the anxiety of being laid-off as well as the desperate desire not to have to conform to the corporate workplace. After being laid-off from his position as a consultant, middle class Vincent lies to his family and friends, pretending that he is a UN bureaucrat working on Third World development. Newspaper reviewers immediately drew comparisons between the premise of Time Out and the infamous 1993 case of Jean-Claude Romand, who had pretended to be a medical doctor at the World Health Organization. When Romand’s family discovered that he was living a second life, he murdered them and unsuccessfully attempted suicide. A bestselling novel based on Romand’s prison account was released in 2000, just a year prior to Time Out’s release. In contrast to Romand, Vincent does not kill his family. While Cantet acknowledges that the film borrows a few biographical details, he insists that the film is not based on this case. Time Out is less about Vincent than what Vincent cannot accept. In an interview Cantet states,
Time Out uses some of the same stylistic elements as Human Resources. Aside from using professionals for the roles of the central character Vincent (Aurelien Recoing) and his wife Muriel (Karin Viard), Cantet again uses a largely non-professional cast, including Serge Livrozet, who plays a con man, Jean Michel. Livrozet is well-known in France as a former criminal who became a political activist, founding an organization with the philosopher Michel Foucault that advocates for improved prison conditions. Time Out’s opening scene, of which the first shot is a long take of over two minutes, seems to indicate that the film will also use an observational documentary style similar to Human Resources. In contrast to Human Resources though, a musical score accompanies the opening credits in this opening shot; this musical score often takes on a haunting quality throughout the film.
Time Out is a psychological drama presented almost entirely from Vincent’s perspective. The mis-en-scene has a significant role in conveying Vincent’s psychological state. Many of the scenes show Vincent takings refuge in isolated places—alone in his car on the road, in his second home in the Swiss Alps. These landscape scenes contrast with the scenes of Vincent’s supposed place of employment—the glass and steel UN building where a security guard notices that he has been loitering in the building for an hour. Higbee points out that there is a “tension between the naturalistic locations and a more stylized mise-en-scene that mirror’s Vincent’s oscillation between the pressures of the real world and the fantasy life he has created for himself.” The mis-en-scene in Time Out takes on a greater symbolic weight than in any of Cantet’s other films.
Cantet’s third film, Heading South (2005), presents a visual and narrative shift. After developing a reputation for portraying the alienation of white male workers and addressing issues of masculinity within capitalism, Cantet adopts a radically different perspective. Heading South omits white men entirely as it moves out of Europe and into the Third World. It portrays middle-aged white women from the United States, Canada, and Great Britain seeking sexual relationships with young Haitian men while vacationing at resorts on the island. The film is also more theatrical in its style, and the three leading women are all professional actresses, most notably Charlotte Rampling as Ellen. Part of the film was, however, actually shot in Haiti because Cantet insisted that it should be located in a specific place and time.
The narrative is based primarily on the short story “Vers le Sud”/“Heading South” by Haitian exile writer Dany Laferriere. In this short story four characters tell their story in the first person, and the film draws on this literary structure by including four confessional monologues where these characters speak directly to the camera. Cantet makes some notable changes in adapting the story as a screenplay. He adds scenes that address the poverty and repressive violence in Haiti and encourage the audience to view the tourists critically. In addition, the film connects the sexual exploitation to a more general exploitation of Haitian poverty, addressing the political and economic underpinnings of the sex tourist industry in a way that the short story does not.
Cantet’s fourth film, The Class (2008), has received the most critical and popular attention. Having won the Palme d’or at Cannes and being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the film has received a lot of praise for its artistic merits. But its political subject matter—the educational system in France—has perhaps attracted more attention. The Class has been referenced in the heated political debate about “the role French schools play in shaping national identity” and the challenges that education presents in France’s multiethnic communities. Cantet set his film in a very precise location: a ‘4e’ class (the equivalent of seventh grade in the U.S.) at the College Francoise Dolto in Paris’ 20th arrondissement, which has a high immigrant population. Cantet uses an entirely non-professional cast in this film. He advertised for student participants in the neighborhood, and the selected cast met once a week for over a year for improvisation workshops. The teacher is played by François Begaudeau, the former teacher turned novelist and film critic, upon whose bestselling autobiographical novel the film is based.
Shot in an observational documentary style, The Class spends most of its time in an actual classroom portraying the personal and cultural tensions between the teacher and the students. Dana Strand points out that the French title for the film, Entre les Murs, translates more literally as “Between the Walls,” suggesting imprisonment. The film includes numerous extreme close-up shots, emphasizing the claustrophobic space of the school. The use of Cinemascope, James S. Williams points out, “further magnif[ies] the sense of claustrophobia in the class” because it reduces both the depth of field and the height of the images. Many of the reviews of the film address Cantet’s choice to use three high-definition cameras. One camera follows the teacher, and two are trained on the class. Having two cameras on the students allows greater freedom for them to improvise and makes the film feel more like a documentary with its long takes. However, much has also been written about the political intentions of this filming style. Rather than shooting for a traditional shot/reverse editing, Cahiers du Cinema describes Cantet’s camera as having a “really neutral position, in the middle of the class.” Although other critics disagree with the claim that the camera placement upsets the power hierarchy, critics generally agree that long takes are less controlling.
While New Realist films can be discussed collectively for sharing similar thematic and stylistic similarities, the filmmakers themselves do not share a common ideological position nor advocate for a political party. Higbee argues that Cantet’s films do not offer solutions to the problems of neoliberalism. Referencing Cantet’s narrative technique in Human Resources that offers a range of perspectives on the 35 hour workweek, Higbee states that Cantet’s films are “devoid of militant didacticism or political sloganeering that prescribes a solution for a given social problem” and references Cantet’s own description for his strategy as “posing questions rather than providing answers.” While Higbee is largely convincing in his assessment that Cantet’s films do not point to solutions, this gesture of posing questions can be read differently.
Cantet’s critical gesture, for example, is reflected in Slavoj Zizek’s productive analysis of the French and the Dutch votes against a European Constitution in spring 2005. In “Against the Populist Temptation” Zizek argues that there were not actually two choices available:
The choice offered from the “enlightened European bureaucrats” was to either rubberstamp the project of the European Union or be called racist. Consequently, in France, only the parties on the far right and left—Le Pen’s National Front and the Communists and Trotskyites—took “no” as their official position. For Zizek, the voters’ no was a brutal refusal to be part of an already closed discussion. While the no failed to represent an alternate political vision, Zizek argues that it is a sign “that the debate about what the new Europe shall and should be is still open.”
Drawing on Zizek’s analysis of the French and Dutch votes against the European constitution, we can say that Cantet’s films similarly offer a “No” to the unbearable conditions of contemporary global capitalism. The narratives of Human Resources and Time Out are each presented from the perspective of a middle-class white male in the First World. They give voice to neoliberal rhetoric in order to illustrate its deceptions. They both portray a refusal—the unwillingness to be part of this system. In contrast, Heading South and The Class portray those who live at the bottom of the neoliberal economy and show more directly the clash between the white middle-class First World and the impoverished and exploited Third World. These films portray the devastating costs of global capitalism. By pointing to problems that are seemingly irreconcilable within global capitalism, all four of these films illustrate the false choices the neoliberal economy offers and the inadequacy of these limited options.