A latter-day neorealist working in the tradition of Roberto Rossellini and Robert Bresson, writer-director Laurent Cantet mixes professional actors with nonprofessionals to explore forces like class, race, and gender through fictional narratives. His latest, The Workshop, is set in La Ciotat, a seaside town in southern France whose once-thriving shipyard closed a generation ago, after years of struggle between the owners and the workers. The film gets its title from one of its main activities: a multicultural group of young people from the area, including the angry and alienated Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), participating in a novel-writing workshop taught by a Parisian writer (Marina Foïs). As the class progresses and we learn more about the nationalistic, anti-immigrant propaganda Antoine is soaking up online, the violence the students are working into their story threatens to spill over into their lives.
Although he won the 2008 Palme d’Or for The Class, there’s no hint of egotism or self-importance in Cantet, who started our interview by pouring me a cup of coffee. Despite the filmmaker’s frequent frustration at being unable to find the exact word he was searching for in English, he was urgently articulate about his work, which he clearly does as much to educate himself as to encourage his audience to question their own beliefs.
I love the way your films explore social issues through fictional narratives.
I’m always interested in showing the complexity of our world. What’s always difficult is making a film that deals with reality without being too…dialectique?
Yeah, yeah. That’s why fiction is really important in my films, even if it deals with something very real and very social. I think that putting political and social issues first would make people afraid to come and watch the film. And also because I am not militant. I am quite involved in what’s happening in our society, but I [just] ask questions and share it with the audience. I don’t have any answer to give, so it’s important to me that political issues are seen through the way a character feels it and lives the story.
When you’re developing a film, do you usually start with an issue you want to explore and then come up with the characters and plot?
Not necessarily. I don’t like the idea of using a character to say what I have to say. What interests me is individual stories that can speak of the whole society. That’s why I’m always focusing on a small group, the school that was [at the center of] The Class, here [in The Workshop] just this group of seven young adults, the factory in Human Resources. Looking at this small group—or one individual, in Time Out—
Though that one was also about the main character’s family to some degree, so you could say it was also a small group.
I like when the components of a story come together [and suddenly] make sense. That’s also why I like to focus on one character, because a character doesn’t always have a straight itinerary. There can be contradictions in the character, which for me is the characteristic of human beings.
How did you come up with the idea for The Workshop?
I really wanted to look at people in the city of La Ciotat. I started to write this story 20 years ago, when it was very different.
How so? Were the shipyards still operating then?
Just closed, after 10 years of really strong fighting between the workers and the shipyard. The municipality of La Ciotat organized this kind of workshop in order to help young people connect with their own story. Robin Campillo, my co-writer and friend, edited a small report for TV on this workshop at this moment. I think it was just after Human Resources. I was interested to see the link young people could have with working-class culture, and I felt the workshop was a good device for young people to find out about their relationship with their parents, their relationship with this past. The workers were very proud of being workers, but this pride was disappearing at that moment. So that was the idea for The Workshop.
Three years ago, just after [the terrorist attack on] Charlie Hebdo, I asked myself how it is to be 20 in such a world. I thought back to this idea of a workshop, and we started to work on that. This time I think I found what I didn’t find 20 years ago, which was a way to make that workshop and real life get mixed through this story between Olivia and Antoine. I think I found the film the day I could say to myself that the fiction that Antoine always asks for in the workshop will bring the fiction to the film. Since they are working on a story about murder, it’s easy for him to express violence, and that was a good way to analyze the border between literary violence and real violence.
Is the difference you found in this area 20 years later that violence has permeated the culture more? Or is it that there’s a fear and vilification of immigrants, particularly people from Muslim countries, that’s feeding this growing wave of right-wing nationalism?
All of that. All that is new. Twenty years ago it wouldn’t have been an issue, but, especially in the south of France, the extreme right is growing up and a lot of young people are attracted by it. I don’t think they are attracted by the ideas. Just feeling that you exist, you know? What interests me in the film is to look at the seduction process of the extremism on people who don’t have any hope, who get bored by their own life.
You make that evolution seem kind of hopeful in the film. Antoine comes off at first like a hateful racist, goading other people in the workshop, but then it starts to look as if he’s just an alienated kid who’s experimenting with this ideology and in the end won’t stick with it. Do you think that’s what’s really going on with this wave of right-wing nationalism and fascism that’s spreading across the world these days?
I hope I’m right. I think I really needed a touch of optimism at the moment that I wrote the film. It’s my most optimistic film, even if it takes place in maybe the worst moment of our history since I’m making films. But if we don’t give the possibility to young people to think about their own life, if we consider them from above…mépriser?
Yeah, despising them, which is definitely the case today. If we don’t understand that they have new tools to communicate, to understand the world, to think about the world, I think we will get in very big trouble. What’s important for me in the film is that at the end, finally, Antoine puts precise words on the very sad feeling he has of his own life. At the moment he puts words he can make a decision, and the decision is to try something else. So that’s maybe too optimistic, but I think this kind of situation is maybe not the solution, but it’s a way to confront our problems.
The stories we tell about ourselves are such an important part of how we make sense of our lives. The workshop allows Antoine to get real with himself about who he is and the direction he’s going in.
Yeah. That’s what I hoped could happen. What was obvious, also, while we were shooting, was the interest that the actors have in this process. You can imagine they have nothing to do with our way of thinking, our way of seeing what’s happening around us, but in fact they are interested but they just maybe don’t have the tools [to explore] that. I was very happy, at the end of shooting, one of the guys [in the film’s workshop] thanked me for the wonderful experience he had. He told me, “You know, it’s the first time I’m speaking that much. Not just joking with friends—I know how to do that—but with the film, for a few months, we had to think precisely what we are living today, and it was a great experience.” I think that’s what we should do with young people: Give them space to think together, to confront others.
When you worked on The Class, you said you came up with a process that worked well for you for developing the film. I think it had to do with workshops you did in advance with the actors. You liked it so much you used it on your next film, Foxfire. Did you use the same process for The Workshop?
It was important for me, since the beginning, to listen to what actors have to bring to the film. But since The Class, I came back to what I did in my first short film, which was to give all the space people need to exist in the scenes and just adapt my mise-en-scène to it. I wrote the story quite precisely, with dialogue, and then we started the casting. My daughter who was 23 years old made the casting for the film. I thought, as she was about the same age as the people they were looking for, they would trust her maybe easier. Then we made three weeks of rehearsal before shooting.
The first time we work on a scene, I don’t give them the script. I just read it once or twice and give them the logic of a scene, and then I ask them to improvise. I don’t want them to feel obliged to say things the way I’m saying them, because what interests me with working with nonprofessional young people is to get their own way of speaking, their own energy, their way of building a thought. We also spent a lot of hours just speaking about a scene, speaking about the film, and sometimes we add some strong position on one character. The story remained the same, but sometimes a thing that just takes two lines in the script would become a whole scene.
For example, when they speak of what they look at on the internet, one of them spoke of Daesh, and then the other one spoke of pornography, and after a few hours of working on this we managed to build the scene through what they brought. I also think they learned about what being an actor means. Because, you know, when I’m filming nonprofessional actors, I’m not filming them for what they are. I’m building a character through their way of speaking, their way of being, but they have to understand that they can give their voice to a character without being confondu—associated with the character. You give your voice, but you don’t give your soul.
And then after we have worked for three weeks we shoot the film. I shoot scenes from the beginning to the end every time. They act for 10, 15 minutes without stopping. Which is for me important because they are carried by the logic of the scene, the emotion of the scene. When you shoot a take and then the reverse shot you have to remember: I was in this state of mind at that moment. I think that is very difficult for a nonprofessional. And even professional actors like this way of working.