The Workshop (L’Atelier) C+
France (114 mi) 2017 d: Laurent Cantet
Not nearly as much fun, or as deeply insightful as TIME OUT (2001), HEADING SOUTH (2005), or Cantet’s Palme d’Or winning film The Class (Entre Les Murs) (2008), where the director has had a hard time re-establishing his relevancy ever since. Despite a terrific performance by Marina Foïs (always good) at the center of the picture, playing a well-known Parisian novelist, Olivia Dejazet, who starts a writing workshop in the working class town of La Ciotat, on the southern Mediterranean coast near Marseille, filled with a multiculturalist group of seven promising high school students, the film becomes bogged down by paying so much attention to one white nationalist student Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) who hogs the limelight with petulant soliloquys that are more of a rebuke of his fellow classmates, resulting in endless arguments that go nowhere, while the concept that this racially divisive group, including white, African, Arabic, and Spanish students, none with a propensity for writing, could actually sit down one summer and spontaneously compose a novel is incredibly far-fetched. Premiering at Un Certain Regard at Cannes, this is another example of a humanist ideal that never lives up to its promise, having to deliver more than what seems credible. Cantet, and his co-writer Robin Campillo, simply take this premise too far, accentuating the extreme over reality. Surrounding Foïs with a group of non-professionals is, in itself, an actor’s workshop, each from La Ciotat developing characters that come from differing backgrounds, but few have anything in common other than a similar residence, with every one thoroughly disenchanted with living there, as they can’t wait to get out, finding it a run-down and economically depressed town with no jobs since the huge shipyards at the dock were closed down 25 years ago, still standing, but deserted and empty, an industrial wasteland, a remnant of the past, becoming more of an eye-sore, yet still the most significant landmark of the city, where they all believe they inhabit a ghost town, a shell of its former self.
While these kids are fairly typical of teenagers today, what seems to fascinate the director is the way they use slang to so easily put each other down, the ordinary insults about hair or clothing, what someone’s wearing, who they were seen with, which also translates to what they have to say, where part of being a kid is instantly rejecting anything that does not fit their world view. With kids coming from different ethnic backgrounds, what’s clearly evident is so few of them have ever left town, still completely unfamiliar with the world around them, even in their own country. While they all use cellphones, the Internet is their only connection to the outside world. Reading is not something we see anyone but Olivia doing, as she carries a book with her everywhere she goes. Initially the students do not embrace Olivia, finding her elitist, thinking she has no connection to their lives, wondering why she would ever leave the far more interesting sophistication of Paris to be with them, feeling like they’re some kind of charity case, but Olivia makes it clear this is simply part of her interest, sharing knowledge about literature with the younger generation of today so that there is a continued link to the future. Once they get started, we realize how difficult it is to get a group to agree on anything, even the simplest ideas, where the only real guideline is to write a noir fiction associated with their town. Immediately Antoine suggests a murder, and is one of the first to actually offer a writing sample, yet the others quickly condemn what he writes as he seems to relish the idea, overly fascinated by killing terrorists and exhibiting extreme levels of violence, yet is completely removed from the subject, like he couldn’t care less about the ramifications. This quickly escalates the discussion, however, with blacks and Muslims quickly offended by the idea that they are being projected as the terrorists. While Antoine seems intelligent, he’s also aggressively confrontational, as he seems to enjoy baiting his fellow classmates with white supremist ideas and denouncing anything they come up with, where they only end up butting heads with each other.
The film essentially evolves around two characters, Olivia and Antoine, only exploring their personal lives with any detail, as Antoine has a habit of hanging out on the rocks overlooking the sea, where he goes swimming each and every day, while Olivia retreats to a comfortable upscale residence, reading with an everpresent glass of wine, and communicating with her husband by Skype. At some point Antoine develops the habit of spying on his teacher at night, hiding in the surrounding foliage, while Olivia explores Antoine’s personal life on the Internet, discovering he belongs to a white nationalist group with a fascination with guns who brazenly post videos on their website, one of which includes a pretend rehearsal for an assassination plot. As their narratives intersect, Olivia grows curious about what’s driving Antoine, thinking she could interview him for potential material in her next novel, but Antoine has a surprise of his own, analyzing his teacher’s own psychology and position of privilege by dissecting various passages from one of her novels. Antoine’s provocation grows more alarming, becoming such a repeated distraction in class that he eventually has to leave, but he’s fuming inside with inner conflict and turmoil, mirroring the problems of contemporary French society, pitting the well-educated intellectuals of Paris against the working class views in industrial towns, the ultra-right nationalists against the socialist left, and the changing perception of Muslims in France, still arguing over the aftereffects of the Bataclan massacre in Paris where now every Muslim is deemed a terrorist. Antoine’s stalking habits continue, as lurking underneath is a dangerous predator, veering into darker territory when fantasy and reality intersect, revealed in an extended nighttime sequence out on the rocks where he anticipates a brutal crime, coming close to carrying it out, where viewers aren’t sure what’s going to happen. In the end, he returns to class, like a prodigal son, reading his chilling account of a dispassionate murder that could very easily have actually happened, before departing once again, where his shadow presence continues to remain lurking just under the surface of French consciousness, with a potential to loom even larger had Marine Le Pen won the most recent Presidential election.