He is the star of the party, greeted with applause. Everyone wants to congratulate him, share a selfie, praise his book. Karim D’s banlieue narrative, Débarquement, is the talk of literary Paris, the grit of Muslim immigrant life rendered in highly contemporary poetic form. Words of praise are offered, hands grab his shoulder, slap his back, endless smiles. On the dance floor, Karim merges with the crowd, welcomed, moving with them. Then his phone vibrates, once, twice; it won’t stop. He pulls away from the dancers to see that his Twitter feed has gone crazy. Post after post about him, uncovering his pseudonym, ‘Arthur Rambo’, under which he had posted the most outrageous things—anti-Semitic, racist, sexist. The shocking tweets appear as text, overlaid on the screen image that shows Karim outside now, on the balcony, the city at night lit behind him and the crowd he had just been a part of, on the other side of the glass, suddenly far away—unattainable. A Muslim kid, confronted by hostile French faces, he is out in the cold again. On his own.
And so begins the latest film by French director Laurent Cantet, Arthur Rambo (2021), which picks up on the dynamic he has explored across eight notable works. When Ressources humaines (Human Resources, 2000), Cantet’s first feature, was released some twenty years ago, it was understandably hailed by critics as signalling the return of social cinema, in a France rattled by high unemployment and the persecution of the sans-papiers, which as yet had little echo in the ‘arthouse’ world. Cantet doesn’t repudiate this social dimension; quite the contrary. But he has always insisted that his particular interest lies in the relationship between the individual and the group. Cantet has explored this in many different ways, both narratively and formally, from the tensions and interactions between workers, management and unions on the factory floor in Ressources humaines, to those between sex tourists and their local providers in Vers le sud (Heading South, 2005), or teachers and pupils in Entre les murs (The Class, 2008); and through more radical characters who force a rupture with the group because they have alternative ideas or want to break with social convention, as in the 1950s girl gang of Foxfire (2012) or the Cuban friends battling the lure of emigration in Retour à Ithaque (Return to Ithaca, 2014). As Cantet puts it:
The question of the place in the group, and in the world, is at the centre of all my films . . . It always struck me as unlikely that people would simply find their places in the world. It seems to me rather that one negotiates one’s place each day with the people that surround us, with the rules to which we do or don’t conform.footnote1
Although Cantet won a Palme d’Or for Entre les murs, he continues to have a surprisingly low profile in France—not unloved, exactly, but not celebrated or cherished either. This is partly explained by his persona, which is the opposite of the director-as-celebrity. Nothing about him attracts tabloid attention. He is polite and reserved, speaking seriously about his films on their release but otherwise mainly staying out of public view. He has described himself as a family man, based for many years in the immigrant quarter of Batignolles in eastern Paris, where his children went to school; this has perhaps made him especially alert to the need to listen to the problems of working-class French youth. In terms of critical attention he is often eclipsed by his peers, as well as directors a generation or so above who still dominate the landscape of French auteurs at home and abroad, such as Andre Téchiné, Arnaud Desplechin, Gaspard Noé, Leos Carax, Claire Denis and Bruno Dumont.
And yet Cantet’s films are consistently impressive for the seriousness and depth with which they treat their subjects. It is worth examining what makes him distinctive as a filmmaker, not only in the context of today’s French cinéma de qualité, as the Cahiers de Cinéma critics notoriously dubbed their homeland’s production, but also in terms of the broader ‘social cinema’—or, more provocatively, the new proletkino—that has emerged in the last twenty years: the work of Ken Loach and the Dardennes brothers; of Robert Guédiguian and Stéphane Brizé in France, or Debra Granik in the us. Cantet’s films are a major contribution to this genre, not only in terms of subject-matter but in their experimentalist method, which offers a non-judgemental openness to the experience of his actor-subjects.
The son of schoolteachers, Cantet was born in 1961 and grew up in Niort, an ancient provincial town in western France, midway between Nantes and Bordeaux. His father was a passionate amateur photographer, and Cantet recalls being transfixed by the magic of the darkroom as the world of still photography was revealed to him. By the age of six, he had his own camera. Initially he studied photography in Marseille, but then opted for the moving image. He wanted to tell stories, and film offered more narrative opportunities, as well as a greater immersion in the world. ‘To be as close as possible to the contemporary reality into which I throw myself,’ he has said, describing cinema’s appeal; taking a camera to a situation allowed him to ‘ask all the questions that the complexity of the universe can put to me.’footnote2 He won a place at France’s leading film school, the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques, in 1984, just as the Mitterrand government was pivoting to austerity, ‘flexibility’ and privatization, against a backdrop of economic gloom. At idhec, Cantet formed long-lasting friendships with fellow students—among them the directors Vincent Dietschy, Dominique Moll, Gilles Marchand and Robin Campillo—and the experience of filmmaking as part of a collective would ground his later career.
After film school, Cantet did some tv work, assisted Marcel Ophüls on Veillées d’armes (The Troubles We’ve Seen, 1994), a documentary on media coverage of Sarajevo; and, with Dietschy, Moll, Marchand and others, set up a cooperative production company, Sérénade, which would produce his earliest films. The first of these, Tous à la manif (All on the Demo, 1994) was Cantet’s response to an invitation from Arté to contribute to a film series on contemporary France, to be broadcast on television. It responded equally to the tumultuous re-emergence of school and student protests in 1994, against the Balladur government’s attempt to cut the under-25s’ minimum wage. Just 27 minutes long, Tous à la manif prefigured many of the features that have characterized Cantet’s oeuvre overall. It is set in a café opposite a school, where the students meet to organize a strike. Cantet cast it with a group of actual pupils, protesting lycéens, with whom he workshopped the scenes: reading the screenplay aloud to them, getting them to discuss the stakes of each scene, rehearse the basic moves and develop the motives of the characters on the basis of their own experience, then improvising with the camera rolling so as to incorporate the best of the dialogue that emerged from the process into the final shoot.footnote3