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Laurent Cantet on France’s Yellow Vest Protests, Next Project About ‘Dangers of Social Networks’

With his 1999 feature debut “Human Resources,” director Laurent Cantet – who later won the Palme d’Or at Cannes with “The Class” – traced the economic and cultural fissures between France’s blue-collar, non-urban set, and the country’s managerial elite. That conflict has played out writ large across the streets of Paris in recent weeks, as members of the “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vest) movement have taken to the streets to protest French President Emmanuel Macron’s technocratic style of governance.

A perceptive examiner of his country’s various fault lines, Cantet has been on jury duty at the Marrakech Film Festival, which wraps up Saturday. When Variety sat down with Cantet to discuss past and future projects, we also asked about the protests that he seemed to foresee nearly two decades ago.

What do you make of the ongoing situation in France?
I feel that the government is completely deaf to the cries of the country. The government doesn’t want to consider the difficulties that people are living, or considers the issues with a lot of complexity. Whatever the case, the government’s arrogance toward the public is only going to exacerbate an already growing problem. There’s been a complete abandonment of the political process as we’ve come to know and understand it.

Still, while there are plenty of valid reasons to go out and protest in the street, I don’t get the impression that the “Gilets Jaunes” know exactly where their movement is going. That kind of improvisation can be beautiful, in a way, and maybe that’s the way we should look at the politics, to try things out and see if they work. But without any overall structure, the movement can go off in all directions, and we see now how it’s being co-opted by the extreme-right.

In your previous film, “The Workshop,” you specifically dealt with a young man falling under the sway of those forces.
I think boredom and ennui are the real catalysts that send kids down a dangerous path. Kids that don’t have many prospects, and don’t have many things going on in their lives, they fall into a state of ennui, and that ennui opens the door to all kinds of extremism. People come to them and say, “follow us and you’ll feel alive,” and that can be very appealing. In “The Workshop” the young characters gets drawn in by the far-right, but it’s the exact same pattern for Jihadists as well. That sense of ennui is our real enemy, it’s what we really need to fight, and maybe culture and creation are the best tools at our disposal.

Where are you in your next creative endeavor?
I just finished my latest script. Now it’s time to look for financing and to begin casting, which is always a very long process for me. Because I look for little known actors, and very often non-professional ones, my casting process can span more than six months. I have a hard time believing professional actors in certain roles. Take factory workers, for example. Bodies speak, and no actor can ever have the physique someone who’s actually done hard labor for over 30 years. That’s not something you can play. That’s why I can spend six to eight months just in casting. I don’t only look for people with strong personalities who can bring their characters to life; I also need to make sure they mesh within the alchemy of the group. In a way it’s the most pivotal part of the process, because if I mess up there, the film will never work.

Can you tell us anything more about the script?
Let’s say that it’s a film that reflects on the dangers of social networks and the difficulties of not falling victim to their power. Those concerns were certainly present in “The Workshop,” but here, they’ll take center stage. I’m interested in the complexity of the world in which I live. I try to share all the questions that the world poses, and I try to stay attentive to what’s going on around me.

Another theme that feels disturbingly relevant. Have you heard the curse, “May you live in interesting times?”
There’s another adage: “Happy people have no stories to tell.” I don’t try to catalogue all the horrors of the world; I simply try to look at the world in all its complexity. The world interrogates me all the time, and I want to share the questions it asks, because I rarely have many answers.

Will this next project reunite you with [“BPM” director and long-time creative partner] Robin Campillo?
Sadly no, but for a happy reason. Robin is busy working on his next film and he just doesn’t have the time. I wrote this latest script with screenwriting duo Fanny Burdino and Samuel Doux, who wrote the recent Cédric Kahn film “The Prayer,” among others. Working with them has been wonderful, but still, it hasn’t been easy to mourn a more-than-two-decades-long collaboration with Robin. We all have to move on to our next projects, but I hope we’ll be able to work together again at some future point.

How do you feel about the French film industry as it stands today?
I think we’re going through a really precarious period in film production, and I very much fear that it’s going to be a lot more difficult make my kind of cinema. If you make films that don’t exactly announce themselves as surefire hits, you feel like you’re walking a tightrope. There’s less money overall, and more of it gets concentrated in the same few projects. In France, things are more difficult today than they were 10 years ago. A decade ago, Canal Plus would help finance a lot more productions. Moreover, there’s been a recent inflation in terms of budgets and resources spent. I really don’t want to partake in that trend. I don’t want to take larger scale films in order to show my evolution as a director.

Do you feel like you’ve evolved as a director?
I have the impression that I have as many doubts today as I did when starting out. Whenever I begin a new project I’ve spent months and months turning it around in my head, telling myself yes one day and no the next. I certainly don’t feel any more at ease in my process. Maybe the only thing that I’ve learned is how to be happier on set. I think if you’re happy on set it shows up onscreen. And I’ve learned that once you’re happy with a take you can let it be. Once you’re satisfied, you don’t have to try it again and again. So I have gleaned that wisdom.

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