Girls in the Gang: Laurent Cantet on Foxfire
‘Foxfire’, the story of the gradual deterioration of a feminist group in 1950s America, gave Palme d’Or-winning French director Laurent Cantet a chance to look at the era’s mythology
Taking on The Man: Foxfire
Man on fire: Laurent Cantet speaking at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. Photograph: Jemal Countess/Getty Images
When the young actors from Laurent Cantet’s The Class – a rough, naturalistic school drama – were summoned back to the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 they didn’t quite know what to expect. The film had played well at the event. Cantet had established himself with knotty films such as Human Resources and Time Out. But they were in competition with giants such as Clint Eastwood, Steven Soderbergh and the Dardenne brothers.
“They were on their way back to Paris,” Cantet remembers. “They stopped the bus in Lyons and turned around. So they had to wait through the ceremony. The prizes got higher and higher. We never dreamed of the Palme d’Or. We couldn’t imagine that. We thought maybe we would get a joint acting prize or something.”
As things worked out, Cantet’s film did walk away with the top prize at that year’s festival. The director, then 46, was now one of the cinematic Elect. Forget those vulgar Oscars. The Palme d’Or secures your reputation as an auteur. The coronation also puts great pressure on a film-maker. What’s your next trick?
To this point, Cantet was best known for films that examined the politics of the French workplace. Human Resources was set among managers in a bland factory. Time Out dealt with an executive who gets laid off. The Class revealed the working of the schoolroom.
Foxfire, Cantet’s delayed follow-up to The Class, looks like a very different beast indeed. Clocking in at two hours and 20 minutes, the picture, adapted from a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, follows a group of young women as they attempt to forge a life away from the conformity of 1950s America. It’s a fascinating piece. We are never quite sure if the cadre counts as a delinquent gang or a feminist commune. Subversive pranks lead quickly into extreme criminality.
“I don’t really agree with you that the film is so different to my other work,” Cantet says. “The context is very different. But the political aspects are very close to what I am usually doing. I am interested in people who invent ideals to help themselves to live. The way of filming is the same too. I allow the actors as much freedom as possible. In those ways it is similar to my other films.”
This does make a kind of sense. The stakes are, however, much higher for the characters in Foxfire than they are for the heroes of Cantet’s earlier films. What we have here is a study of the way revolutionary cells – the Red Army Faction, the IRA, the Angry Brigade – so often end up betraying their own pure principles. The women form the Foxfire group in opposition to small-town misogyny. But they end up behaving little better than outlaws.
“That really was the main theme of the film,” he says. “When these groups face the hard realities of society they further radicalise their stance. Often they end up killing their ideals. They start with the best intentions and end up as terrorists. This film is about the end of an ideal. In this case, they begin by living under strong feminist ideals. Those crumble when faced with the necessities of life.”
It is interesting that Cantet (or should we say Oates) has chosen to tell this tale in the US during the Eisenhower era. This was, we are led to believe, the point at which white, middle-class, male America was most confident in itself. The Civil Rights movement had yet to come over-ground. Rock ’n’ roll looked like a passing fad. Conservatism was, it seemed, the only ideology on sale.
“I think conservatism was very strong but also the dream was very strong,” Cantet muses in his confident English. “The American dream was at its height. I think we don’t have a true image of this moment in history. There were a lot of people on the other side of the dream left out of history. It was important to show the mythology and the lives people actually led.”
It’s a good point. Popular culture seems to argue that US political radicalism began in the 1960s. Up to then, everybody toed the line and bought the great myth.
“Yes, that is the deception,” he agrees. “When writing the script, I read Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States. The country’s history is also about the struggles of unions and radicals. You could easily not realise that, looking in from France. Maybe America is itself responsible for this problem. They are hiding their own history from themselves.”
Cantet’s point about the film hitting the same ideological chords that underscored Time Out and Human Resources is worth making. But what really binds together the director’s work is the way he allows actors to improvise their way towards an engaging naturalism. This made perfect sense for films that, like The Class, have the feeling of an ordered documentary. Foxfire is more dependent on old-fashioned, classical plot-arcs.
“That was interesting for me,” he agrees. “I was trying to see whether the method of filming that I found for The Class could work for a very different film. I worked with non-professional actors. I tried to integrate their ideas into the story. We would use two cameras and improvise. We’d try and get away from the old notions of reverse shot, medium shot, wide shot and so on.”
The result is a most peculiar film. It is set in America, but it doesn’t feel like an American product. It concerns a group of feminist radicals who, for the most part, wouldn’t recognise that description of themselves (or anybody else). And it’s very, very long. Though endlessly amiable, Cantet comes across as a man who won’t be told to play by the rules.
“Yes, I tried to make it shorter,” he says with a smile. “But I never managed to cut it. I need time for the characters to exist outside the story. I don’t like them to be efficient machines. There was a version that was 10 minutes longer. But I prefer this one. I like scenes where you can just be with a character and not worry about the plot.”
Very convincingly put. We need more such odd movies.
‘Foxfire’ opens in selected cinemas on August 9th