This year’s New York Film Festival opened Friday night with a screening of French director Laurent Cantet’s The Class.
The film, which has already won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, focuses on a multicultural classroom in Paris’ rapidly gentrifying 20th Arrondissement. With the exception of the role of the teacher, who is played by the author of the memoir that inspired the movie, the cast is made up of a group of amateur teenage actors, most of whom had traveled to New York for the festival.
Maybe it was the serious, relatively low-profile film—The Darjeeling Limited was last year’s selection, and The Queen opened the year before that—or the rain or the presidential debates on TV, but the red carpet was particularly quiet.
Anne Hathaway appeared for long enough to be photographed in a beaded, black-and-white Marchesa dress but was quickly ushered inside. Matthew Modine predicted a difficult time for film, saying “The hedge fund people have been financing independent film, so I think that money’s all dried up.” But, he said, “I think it’s going to be an interesting time, too, because in difficult times, artists go back to be being artists. It stops being about making money.”
Mr. Cantet himself seemed pleased with the reception of the film New York, telling us about a meeting with the New York City School Chancellor, who wanted to organize screenings of it for city teachers.
“It’s very rich for all children, because they are facing so many different experiences of life. When I was in school, we were all the same in the class and I never had this kind of meeting with other cultures, other ways of thinking, other ways of being in the society.”
And how were his charges enjoying New York? “To them, it’s like a dream. Yesterday evening, we went to Times Square, and just walking in Times Square is so incredible for them. I’m so happy to be here with them.”
As Mr. Cantet moved down the press line, the young actors approached. A handler explained they didn’t really speak English and wouldn’t be able answer questions. A particularly aggressive photographer, irritated when the teenagers wouldn’t respond to his (English) posing instructions, began cursing at them, miming a camera and shouting, somewhat inexplicably, “Britney Spears!”
The kids stared at him with a mix of disgust, amusement, and horror until one girl shouted something back that drew collective laughter from the cast. The atmosphere grew uncomfortable as the photographer continued to complain and the carpet cleared out entirely. Without a ticket for the screening, the Daily Transom left to prepare for the after party.
Later, wandering the mirrored halls and chambers of the labyrinth Tavern on the Green, we encountered a wide array of open bars and dinner options, but nobody to talk to! We were about to settle for a night of interrogating the dessert table when we spotted Village Voice columnist Michael Musto. Was he also covering the party?
“Well, it’s one of those times when I can choose to do it or not,” he explained, double-fisting what he told us were glasses of diet soda and cranberry juice.
A veteran of this particular event, he explained, “It’s gotten bigger ever year–it’s now full of the secretarial pool of every film-related organization, so it’s much less press friendly. You used to be able to mix around.”
Any advice on how we might more effectively mix? “Just work fast. Be very feral, like animals you see on nature channels. It evaporates very quickly, so while you still see it, you have to go after what you want.”
Hmm. So we tried to keep that in mind as we proceeded toward the courtyard, where we spotted a slightly lost-looking John Waters.
“I’m looking for the people I came with,” he explained. What about the movie we all just saw?
“I thought it was the best subtitles I’ve seen in a movie in a long time," he said. "They kept up, they were well translated, and they were endless.”
“They always pick what won in Cannes, and I always like what won in Cannes," Mr. Waters said. "You know, I’m old school. I like subtitles in the winter–snow scenes! I’m a fan of art movies and it’s hard to see them anymore.”
“It used to be that when I was young those were the films that broke all the rules, and they still are, but people don’t seem to care as much as they used to.”
Echoing Mr. Modine’s earlier comment, he observed “I think it’s the hardest time for independent films since I’ve ever worked.” Why were things so quiet tonight? “I think some people stayed home and watched the debate.”
Back inside, we chatted briefly with a coat check-bound Joan Allen: “I thought the film was really compelling, very compelling–an interesting choice for opening night. Definitely a film that makes you feel like you’re in real time with these people. We were actually looking for some of the kids, to congratulate them.”
We told her she would need a background in French for that, briefly recalling the incident with the photographer.
“Oh! Well, they’re not used to that. They don’t have that in France.”
While this particular arm of the Daily Transom quit French after our junior year of high school, our companion is fluent. Inspired by Ms. Allen, we endeavored to get the teenagers’ take on the evening.
After having tracked them down near a gazebo, we asked 17-year-old Franck Keita how he was enjoying the party.
“The party is super chic, but I feel like sleeping,” he said. We pointed out that there were a lot of pretty girls around. Did they compare favorably to the women of Paris?
“No, no! Paris, Paris, Paris.”
Right! So does he get recognized in France?
“Yes, it happens sometimes … In the beginning it was weird, but now it’s fine," he said. "I have the same friends. My best friend is in the film, so it’s good.”
Perhaps the lack of press attention noted by Ms. Allen had kept them more grounded than their American counterparts?
A couple feet away was 17-year-old Esmeralda Ouertani, the girl who lobbed the reply from the red carpet. We asked her for her interpretation of the incident.
“He was a little weird—he was annoying. He was screaming and cursing, insulting us. He was saying ‘fuck, fuck.”
We asked her what she’d said that had drawn such a reaction from the cast. “Well, he said ‘What? Do you think you’re Britney Spears?’ and I said ‘Well, for now I’m not Britney Spears, but I am on the red carpet and you’re over there scrambling for a picture, so shut your mouth!’”
Did she find the party to be more convivial than the red carpet?
“It’s a little old fashioned…I preferred the Majestic in Cannes.”
She told us The Class was her first film–did she want to continue her acting career as an adult? “No,” she said, “I want to be a philosopher.”