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Laurent Cantet, Whose Films Explored France’s Undersides, Dies at 63

Laurent Cantet, an eminent director who made penetrating films about the prickly undersides of French life and society, died on April 25 in Paris. He was 63.

His screenwriter and editor, Robin Campillo, said he died of cancer in a hospital.

Mr. Cantet’s best-known film was “Entre les Murs” (“The Class”), which won the Palme d’Or, the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, in 2008 and was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign-language film. “The Class” was something new in French filmmaking: an extended snapshot of the inside of a schoolroom in a working-class district of Paris, using a real-life ex-teacher and real-life schoolchildren and treading a provocative line between documentary and fiction.

That ambiguity infuses the film with a rare tension, as a hapless language teacher struggles with his largely immigrant students, trying (with difficulty) to gain their acceptance of the strict rules of the French language, and French identity. In this frank chronicle of classroom life, the students, many of them from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia — bright, sometimes provocative — have the upper hand.

Along the way, Mr. Cantet surgically exposes the fault lines in France’s faltering attempts at integration, showing exactly where the country’s rigid model is often impervious to the experience of its non-native citizens. Reviewing “The Class” in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis called it “artful, intelligent” and “urgently necessary.”

The film touched a nerve in France, selling more than a million tickets. Right-leaning intellectuals like Alain Finkielkraut denounced it for devaluing classical French culture — unwittingly underscoring Mr. Cantet’s point.

Mr. Cantet was invited to the Élysée Palace to discuss the film with President Nicolas Sarkozy. He declined the invitation. “I’m not going to speak about diversity with someone who invented the Ministry of National Identity,” Mr. Cantet said at the time, referring to one of Mr. Sarkozy’s more ill-fated initiatives.

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