This is the third cinema fiction feature by the French auteur Laurent Cantet. I recently wrote about his film L’atelier (The Workshop, France 2017) and this blog also carries entries on Ressources humaines (France 1999) and Entre les murs (The Class, France 2008). Heading South is both a slightly different kind of production and one that proved controversial. Cantet and his co-writer (and editor) Robin Capillo worked on a script together as usual but they used as inspiration three short stories by the celebrated Haitian writer Dany Laferrière who fled the country in 1976 during the notorious Presidency of Jean-Claude Duvalier (‘Baby Doc’). He settled first in Montreal and later Miami. The film narrative is set in the late 1970s and it includes some location shooting in Haiti before the shoot became too dangerous and was moved to the Dominican Republic (the other 2/3rds of the island of Hispaniola).
The title refers to a group of single women from the North who travel South to Haiti in search of sun and sand, but mainly sex and companionship. The thematic background here is ‘sex tourism’, something usually featuring men travelling to Asia or Africa to find young women or young men. Almost as if to signal the controversy, Cantet cast Charlotte Rampling in the lead role. By 2005, Ms Rampling had moved into the second phase of her long career, taking roles in both British and French productions. Earlier in her career she played in several high profile films challenging audiences including Visconti’s The Damned in 1969 and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter in 1974. Challenging the idea that women over 50 couldn’t be involved in narratives about desire and sexuality, here she plays Ellen, a university professor of French Literature living in Boston. Ellen is British and the character is slightly younger than Rampling, at 55. But the first traveller we meet is Brenda (Karen Young) a woman in her late 40s from Savannah, Georgia whose marriage has failed and who is picked up at the airport by the manager of the beach resort hotel. On arrival Brenda makes straight for the beach where she finds Legba, the beautiful young Haitian man who she met three years earlier as a younger teenager. Brenda hasn’t been back to Haiti until now and she is unaware that Ellen is the Queen Bee on the beach and that the beautiful young men are meant to be shared around rather than monopolised. Brenda soon realises the power play here. There are several white women on the beach but the only other one who is picked out in the narrative is Sue (Louise Portal), a warehouse manager from Montreal aged somewhere between Brenda and Ellen. The three central characters are all well-known actors but most of the rest of the cast comprises non-professionals as in Cantet’s productions generally.
Cantet’s regular theme concerns a character who is in some ways distant from or antagonistic towards a group. Brenda is that character here since Ellen and Sue have adjusted to their position re the young men they take into their beds. Brenda’s actions are more disruptive. Legba (Ménothy Cesar) is the only Haitian character with whom we spend any length of time and through him we get a clearer picture of what is really happening in the country. I won’t spoil the narrative but what happens to Legba creates the film’s climax and final ‘resolution’. Cantet’s usual methodology works well here so he doesn’t engineer the plot to make obvious statements but instead allows relatively minor incidents along the way to build a sense of the neo-colonial society in which North American tourists have replaced the 18th century French colonialists (Haiti having been the first Black European colony to stage a successful revolution – a ‘slave rebellion’ in 1791). In an early dinner conversation about the male white tourists in the resort involving all three women, Sue and Ellen contrast the white men with the young black men. Sue admits that there are many black men in Montreal she could date, but she says that she never thinks about doing it. In Haiti all three women lust after the young black men. Brenda isn’t sure why this might be but she suggests that they seem “closer to nature” and “more gracious”. This seems like an expression of the traditional racial trope of the ‘noble savage’. Ellen cuts across this by declaring that the young men are attractive because they are shirtless most of the time and she urges Brenda to “go for it” as they are “a dime a dozen”. This is very provocative stuff. As well as the seemingly racist remarks, however, it is also ‘shocking’ to hear middle-aged women discussing the young men much as teenage boys might discuss girls.
At one point it seemed fairly clear to me that Ellen was a rather unpleasant character as indicated by some of the comments above, but later it seems that the most dangerous character is possibly Brenda because she is unaware of how her actions look. At one point she demands that Legba be served in the resort’s dining room. The young men on the beach are not allowed into the restaurant but Brenda insists and embarrasses everyone, but most of all the Haitian hotel manager Albert (Lys Ambroise). We learn a couple of things about Albert which suggest he is very aware of his position as a form of intermediary between the white tourists and Haitian culture generally. In some ways he is the classic ‘subaltern’ character in a colonial text – situated here between the local community and the white tourists.
The formal aspect of Cantet’s approach in this film includes direct-to-camera pieces by the three women and a voiceover by Albert, each announced by the character’s name in a title card. I’m not quite sure why Cantet includes this device, except that what they reveal about the characters feelings and their relationships in the context of the beach resort would be difficult to insert into dialogue or to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. Sue comes across as a warm human being, Ellen as self-centred and Brenda as naÏve. What she tells us about would also be an illegal act in the UK. It is Albert’s thoughts that pin down the neo-colonialism as he contextualises it by telling us that his grandfather fought American occupiers in 1915 and he was taught to never trust white people.
I hesitate to say I enjoyed the film but I do think that it stands as an important film in opening up debates about the legacy and return of colonial attitudes. I note that the reviews of the film are divided into those that dismiss it completely (some are shockingly ignorant about the details of the plot) and those few that properly ‘get’ the discourse about colonialism. Some criticise Cantet’s indifference towards period detail, but he isn’t concerned with authenticity in the conventional sense. He’s more concerned with the naturalism of performance and the energy of scenes. I have to say also that I did enjoy the location photography very much and I was reminded of the breathtaking beauty of Caribbean beaches. I would recommend the film.
Laurent Cantet makes clear in the Press Notes (which are in English despite what the link suggests) that he doesn’t judge the characters in his films. He sees Brenda as the most optimistic of his characters in his three films by 2005. As I’ve indicated, I’m not sure I agree.
The Workshop directed and co-written by Laurent Cantet is currently screening on BBC iPlayer until early January. Cantet is a celebrated auteur who won the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2008 for Entre les murs (The Class). He has a distinctive approach to narratives that often create tensions inside groups of people in provocative ways.
The Workshop is inspired by a real event in 1999 when an English novelist was invited to run a writing workshop for young people in the small coastal town of La Ciotat on the French Mediterranean coast between Marseille and Toulon. The workshop featured in a French Cultural TV programme. Cantet thought about making a film at that time but switched to another project, only to return in 2016 and write a script with Robin Campillo, a long time collaborator who in 1999 had worked as an editor on the TV original programme. The new context, during the period when France suffered a series of high profile terror attacks, proved to be stimulating in various ways.
There are several important issues that feed into the social, cultural, economic and political context of the film. La Ciotat is a small town of only around 34,000. It has an important place in film history as the location of the summer residence of the Lumière Brothers. One of the earliest films by the Lumières, L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat was first shown in February 1896 in Paris. La Ciotat was also a major shipbuilding centre and the first French shipyard to produce steamships in the mid 19th Century using imported British technologies. In the 1970s it became known for the construction of oil tankers and bulk carriers, very large ships, eventually of up to 300,000 tons. In the late 1980s French shipbuilding was ‘rationalised’ and the yard was shut, although the workers campaigned to keep it open. Gradually the town began to focus on tourism and developed a yacht marina. The shipbuilding legacy saw yacht repairs and specialist boatbuilding return with far fewer jobs. Shipbuilding is the ‘heritage’ of the town, supported by local cultural projects, hence the writing workshop – a community-based event. But do the current generation of young people feel connected to the history of the town?
The coastline of the old province of Provence runs from Marseille to the Italian border and offers a mix of the industrial and the touristic with a focus on art and entertainment on the Cote d’Azur as well as the main naval port of Toulon. It figures prominently in French cinema, joyfully in a film like Jules et Jim (1962) and more intriguingly in Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965). What is important is that as the major French region with ports for direct contact with North Africa, this is also a region with Maghrebi families now into second and third generations as well as the returned settlers after the independence of the French colonies in the Maghreb. So the region has widespread support for Front Nationale/National Rally, whereas de-industrialisation has weakened support for the Socialists and Communists.
Cantet is careful not to provide too much background to the workshop and how the seven young people (four male, three female) were selected. Some have genuine ambitions to be writers, but others may just be bored or pressurised to come by the local job centre or by parents. It is important though that this group is representative of the town in terms of ethnicity, social class and religion. Although it is very much a group, the events push forward Antoine (an outstanding performance by Matthieu Lucci who has since gone on to appear in other film and TV productions). Ironically, Antoine claims that he doesn’t want to speak and feigns disinterest but when he does speak he is provocative and therefore potentially disruptive, but also intelligent and clearly engaged with a range of ideas. At one point he watches a French Armed Forces recruitment video and suggests that he might join the army. France has the largest armed forces in Europe and is active in many parts of the world. There is no conscription in France and instead promotional events and ‘taster’ drives prove effective in recruiting. The prospect of army life as an alternative to the lack of employment openings for young people links L’atelier to films like Les combattants (France 2014) with its central character of a highly educated young woman determined to join up.
Antoine proves to be someone who the novelist Olivia (Marina Foïs), the workshop leader, feels compelled to confront. She finds him mysterious and, perhaps unwisely, decides to engage with him outside the workshop. This gives Cantet the opportunity to develop a possible thriller. I don’t wish to spoil the narrative in any way so I’ll stop there. This is an intelligent film, but one that is complex in terms of what it is exploring – which isn’t the kind of action narrative that mainstream audiences expect. The ending of the film will not satisfy everyone but seemed to me to work very well. I think it’s time to go back and look at some of Laurent Cantet’s other films sitting in my DVD pile.
Within and without walls.
I want to discuss the recent French film success The Class (Entre les murs, 2008), but also an earlier and comparable film by Bertrand Tavernier. Both are really interesting films dealing with education and teaching. And they are part of a long-running cycle in French cinema, reaching back to Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933) and continuing to the recent documentary success directed by Nicolas Philibert, Etre et Avoir (2002).
[WARNING: Plot spoilers ahead]
The Class presents the audience with a year in the life of a suburban Paris school, focusing on one teacher, François, and the class to whom he teaches French. The film is based on a book by an actual teacher, François Marin. Marin himself plays the protagonist François. And the students are from a school in a Zone d’Education Prioritaire.
The Sight & Sound synopsis reads in part:
” He [François] and his colleagues are shown teaching inattentive yet opinionated adolescents, some of whom have significant behavioural and personal problems.
François attempts to engage his pupils critically, using every opportunity to make them reflect on themselves and the subjects being studied. However, his efforts to create a stimulating learning environment are continually undermined by the need to impose discipline on frequently unruly and insolent pupils.”
This is fine in terms of an ‘official’ plot. However, the mise en scène, especially the performance of a predominately non-professional cast, suggests a different ‘subplot’. The film appears to present a positive engagement of a liberal teaching approach with pupils from deprived situations. But this liberal ethos is undermined by the developments we see taking place in the classroom.
The French title, translating as ‘within the walls’, offers a more accurate rendition of the film. For the students are clearly caught within the confines of this educational institution, deemed to be in their interests. I should say that they did appear fairly motivated in comparison with some actual British student groups I have encountered. The most dramatic and violent moment occurs when an African student from Mali, Souleymane, accidentally strikes a fellow pupil with his satchel.
The classroom in which these students sit increasingly becomes a ‘stage’ for their teacher, François. Good teaching navigates a fine line between display and engagement. What I noticed was that as the year progresses François becomes increasingly taken with the display he presents to these students. Despite his frequent questions and the usage of their cultural language, François is ‘presenting’. One notices that François’ interaction with students is limited to certain extrovert students. The point is emphasised when one black girl, often seen in shot but never speaking, confesses at the end of the year that ‘she does not know what she has learnt.’ Francois’ response is to demur and insist that she will discover that she has learnt something: but I incline to think the student was the more accurate. Ginette Vincendeau in Sight & Sound suggested that in both book and film it is “beur and black pupils [that] are the most disruptive (the white pupils are visually and orally marginalised) . . .” I am not certain this is completely so, but it does fit with the power relations that the film dissects.
The climax of the classroom interaction is the one occasion when François loses his ‘cool’ with his challenging charges. He calls two girl students pétasses (‘skanks’ according to the subtitles, I think ‘slags’ gives a sense of this). The incident escalates as Souleymane discovers that Francois has labelled him as ‘limited’ during a teacher assessment. Souleymane’s abrupt exit, with a girl struck by his satchel, leads to a disciplinary hearing. On one of the few occasions that we learn about situations beyond the school we are told that expulsion for Souleymane would mean him having to return to his home country of Mali. Despite this, the hearing leads to his expulsion. His mother, who has to have the French of the hearing translated for her by her son, sits and listens, displaying a clear awareness of the power relations being bought to bear on Souleymane.
There seemed to me a clear intent by the director, Laurent Cantet, to demonstrate the limitations of the liberal teaching ethos. The incident involving Souleymane was taken from another script written by Cantet. In an interview he suggests a rather ambiguous standpoint. “The film is utopian about the possibilities this kind of setting offers, but pessimistic about the school system in general.” Quite a few critics saw the film as endorsing the approach of François and regarded the climatic confrontation as demonstrating “the fragility of a world in which a single word . . . can bring a year’s work, a lifetime investment in a career, and the modest hopes of a young man’s family, crashing down.” (Sight & Sound review). My teaching friends tended to be much more critical of the teacher François. And for me, those positive reviews fail to pick up on the nature of interaction of teacher and students. And this interaction is actually a manifestation of the social and economic relations that determine the situation of both teachers and students. However, I think the film fails to make this point that strongly, partly because of its enclosed representation of a school: by not going beyond its walls.
By comparison Bertrand Tavernier’s film, It All Starts Today (Ça commence aujourd’hui, 1999), has a very overt political discourse. The film focuses on Daniel, a head-teacher in an infant school in an-ex-mining area in Northern France. Like The Class, It All Starts Today is based on actual experience. In this case it is the memories described to Tavernier by Dominique Sampiero. However, Sampiero did not write a book and Tavernier himself developed his accounts into a scripted story. And unlike The Class, whilst there are clearly non-professional adult and child performers, there are also professional actors cast in the film. Presumably this was in part due to Tavernier writing in scenes of life away from the school, both within Daniel’s own family and within the families of some of the school students. The plotting of the story produces an uneven narrative: parts of the film parallel the documentary feel of The Class: other sequences are clearly dramatisations.
But this scripting also introduces a clear political and economic discourse. The mining town of Hernaing has seen pit closures. The mayor informs us that employment is at 34%. We see the poverty and deprivation when the children return from school. In one traumatic case unpaid electricity bills lead to a suicide and infanticide by a mother. Daniel, like François, is clearly on the sides of the students. But he is also clearly set off from the authorities and the establishment. Whilst François becomes a participant in the ‘trial’ of Souleymane, Daniel is shown repeatedly in conflict with his superiors and local agencies. One of his conflicts with authorities is over attempts to have the school designated as a ‘priority zone’. And the depiction of violence includes the complete trashing of the school by two local teenagers.
I found The Class created a fine sense of the school and the class, with impressive performances from the students. It All Starts Today achieves this only intermittently with its far younger students. But I felt that the latter film did have a more developed political discourse. Both are well made and well worth viewing. Note also, both were filmed in anamorphic formats, (i.e. 2.35:1), so if you watch it away from the cinema screen, check it has not been cropped. You will miss quite a lot!
The interview with Laurent Cantet is in Sight & Sound November 2008 issue: the film review of the film and the article by Ginette Vincendeau are in the March 2009 issue. And there is a review of the Tavernier film in the August 1999 issue.
Laurent Cantet won the big prize at Cannes this year with Entre les murs (France 2008). Set in a tough school with an ethnically diverse cast it sounds terrific and I’m looking forward to seeing it (I can’t find a UK distributor yet though).
I thought it would be useful to check out Cantet’s first film which sounded as if it had a similar approach. I missed Ressources humaines in 1999 – something I regret now. I was riveted to my rented DVD screening, what a cracking film!
The story is classically simple. A young man returns to his home town from a business or management school in Paris. He has arranged a placement as a trainee/intern at the factory where his father has worked for thirty years in a mundane job stamping out metal parts at 700 per hour. The son is bright and well turned out and only too eager to naively suggest ways in which the management can approach negotiations with the workers about the move to a national 35 hour week (recently rescinded by Sarkozy). This is the young man’s college project. He has a good idea, but the management are quick to use it in ways he hasn’t thought through. He’s going to have to eat humble pie before the ferocious CGT steward in the factory. But although it’s a terrific representation of evil bosses and a workforce struggling to understand how to cope with change, the real story is about father (who, most of all, doesn’t want to resist) and son, culminating in a scene of terrible emotional ferocity that few will be able to forget.
The approach is pure Loachian social realism, only lacking a little of Ken Loach’s wicked humour (not that this film is po-faced or solemn). All the cast bar the lead role are non-professionals, including unemployed people in the town. The camerawork is observational and functional without drawing attention to itself.
Loach himself has tended not to make too many recent films directly focused on an industrial dispute, although both Bread and Roses (2000) and Navigators (2001) included large elements of unrest at the workplace. Other than those (the first of which was set in Los Angeles) the last UK feature I can remember with such a theme was Dockers (UK 1999), a TV film written by Jimmy McGovern and Irvine Welsh. I always wondered why Loach was so popular in France, but this film suggests that he has French disciples who make similar films.