‘The Workshop’ is the first film that director Laurent Cantet (‘Human Resources’, ‘Time Out’) has made in France since 2008's Palme d’Or winner ‘The Class’, a discourse on French identity and societal values between students, moderated by a teacher in a school classroom. His new film covers similar ground - for the most part.
Set in the Southern portside town of La Ciotat, another group of students (played by a bunch of nonprofessional actors who helped to workshop a script by Cantet and Robin Campillo) are a racially and ideologically diverse lot tasked with writing a novel under the tutelage of Olivia Dejazet (Marina Foïs, 'Polisse', 'A Stormy Summer Night'), a successful Parisian writer of crime fiction. The group conceives of a murder, motivated either by race or economic grievance, at the dockyards that have turned into a business that designs high-end yachts. Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) is a gifted but antagonistic contrarian in the group. His ideas seem motivated by a combination of regurgitated far-right philosophies and brow-furrowing nihilism. His own stories, as well as his suggestions for the group project (a mass shooting on a yacht at the local harbour), are disturbing odes to violence - particularly the Bataclan theatre massacre in Paris.
Olivia and Antoine are fascinated with each other - both are drawn to hard-hitting subject matter (crime, violence, identity) and the freedom to express any and all ideas, no matter how extreme. This sets them apart from the more politically correct teenagers in the program, who thoughtfully discuss identity politics, classism, and the role of art in provoking society. The writing group allows the film to underline its own genre mechanics; almost everything the kids say about their novel also functions as knowing auto-critique.
There’s also a hint of some repressed sexual tension at play. Antoine looks up clips of Olivia’s media interviews on his laptop, making impressed comments to his friends about her looks and intelligence. Olivia, becoming curious about Antoine to the point of distraction, ogles him at the beach before combing through his social media feed and discovering troubling videos; the next day, she asks Antoine if he could help her for “research” on a novel she’s writing that has to do with a boy his age. She has other plans that don’t involve research: she wants to know if he’s been radicalised and if he poses an immediate threat to herself and the students.
Cantet opens ‘The Workshop’ with a full-screen shot of an adventure video game, ‘The Witcher’, and we watch as the white-haired hero character swings his sword around aimlessly and fires a few crossbow bolts into the sky. As the film progresses, it attempts to profile Antoine as a young man who could potentially be driven to violence by his boredom in his small town, coupled with his obsessions with online clips of nationalist diatribes, video games and youthful hedonistic behaviour. This aspect of his portraiture feels unimaginative and verges on turning Antoine into a glowering, one-dimensional villain. However, we also see Antoine’s attempt to sculpt his body (he routinely performs sit-ups and swims along the coastline) and his fractious relationship with the group (particularly an outspoken Muslim girl), and Cantet allows a clearer and more sympathetic picture to emerge of a young man simmering due to a lack of direction. Calling Antoine a villain is reductive, as we realise he and his friends are just the sort of angry young adults that, a few decades ago, would have found work and meaning in the shipyard, but now they just waste time and dabble in right-wing politics because that side at least pretend to care.
Olivia and Antoine are fascinated with each other - both are drawn to hard-hitting subject matter (crime, violence, identity) and the freedom to express any and all ideas, no matter how extreme.
Cinematographer Pierre Milon (with a moody score by Bedis Tir) captures Olivia and Antoine negotiating the craggy beaches and waterfront vistas of La Ciotat, a town that was a centre of shipbuilding, now fallen upon hard times. Nimble handheld camerawork also puts the audience right in the classroom amongst the group of excitable, opinionated teenagers, with all their frictions and arguments.
‘The Workshop’ is a simple yet vital film, with a final act that veers from the formula of ‘The Class’ into more standard (but tense) class warfare thriller territory than expected, something akin to Canet’s ‘Time Out’ and ‘Human Resources’. Before that, Cantet films the scenes of workshop debate with a keen eye for current political and societal hot-button topics, and there is something incredibly absorbing about watching the next generation of French young adults talking about their own identity and where it fits in their own country.