Alexei Sayle once cautioned that you should never enter a workshop that doesn’t have a vice in it. French writer-director Laurent Cantet’s new film The Workshop soon reveals that though it’s not that kind of workshop, he is still able to turn the screws.
It’s summer in the small coastal French town of La Ciotat and a diverse group of teenagers gather at a creative writing workshop under the tutelage of a successful novelist, Olivia (Marina Foïs). The group is going to write a novel – a thriller – and there discussions of a murder and the background of the crime begin to reveal racial and religious tensions within the group. Malika (Warda Rammach) wishes to include working class background from her communist grandfather; others wish to include the decrepit state of the town’s shipyard. And there is also a tension between this working class past and the yachts of the billionaires that now are docked in the marina. One of them wants to write a new version of Scarface.
With everyone thinking aloud about story, the audience is tempted to second guess Cantet and co-writer Robin Campillo – the acclaimed director of BPM (Beats Per Minute) – in their own storytelling. It’s easy to see the initially suspicious group – one of the participants seems to be there purely so as not to lose his benefits – becoming Dead Poet Society-ed into an appreciation of culture and Olivia in turn learning to set aside prejudices that she didn’t even know she had.
This workman-like plotting is disrupted by the most disruptive member of the class, Antoine (newcomer Matthieu Lucci), an articulate if sulky kid, with glowering hostility kept tightly wrapped under a superficial display of politeness. It soon becomes apparent that his race-baiting provocations come from a background in the far right, with an older cousin and his circle of friends encouraging his racism. Cantet is careful to show the attraction of the group. They’re not dead-eyed fanatics but a group of fun-loving racists who play video games, get drunk and, more disturbingly, practice shooting.
In some ways, The Workshop is an obvious companion piece to Cantet’s 2008 Palme d’Or winner The Class. But times have changed and in a France where the far right Front National is now a massively influential political force dewy-eyed hopes for integration aren’t enough. In an ironic twist, the second generation immigrants and muslims of the workshop are actually the ones who are the most integrated and the most confident in their assertion of their French-ness. It’s Antoine who is the outsider, uncertain of his identity, stubbornly excluding himself and picking fights as he contemplates a life in the army. The latter half of the film follows Antoine and his slide into loneliness and resentment.
Here, the film takes on a more melodramatic bent and though it has eschewed one predictable plotline, it slots all too easily into another, as the disturbed kid nurtures an unhealthy and growing fascination with his teacher. His political outlook is boiled down to the patronising question: is he bad or sad? Given the demographic makeup powering the rise of the far right in France and for that matter across the world laying it at the door of the disaffected youth in a We Need to Talk About Antoine fashion feels like an old answer to a new question. It’s difficult given the premise of the film not to come out of The Workshop thinking of alternative directions the story could have gone in.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty