The first film that Laurent Cantet has made in France since 2008’s The Class, The Workshop shares enough aesthetic and political DNA with the director’s Palme d’Or winner to almost feel like a sequel. Shot shortly after an extended period of unrest in the suburbs of Paris, The Class staged a discourse on French identity and societal values in a middle school classroom. The Workshop sets a more expansive, if sometimes more superficial, discussion of the fraught status of French republicanism around a summer writing class. The students, played by a group 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 and moderation of Olivia Dejazet (Marina Foïs), a successful writer of crime fiction.
This setup, combined with the film’s portside setting in the Southern town of La Ciotat, allows The Workshop to proceed fairly smoothly on parallel tracks: As the students discuss story and genre conventions (they immediately decide their novel will be a thriller), they also invariably scrutinize the current narrative of their country. Some of their sessions take place in a classroom setting, while many occur on craggy beaches and waterfront vistas. La Ciotat, though, is no tourist haven: The town thrived as a center of shipbuilding, but it’s fallen on hard times over the past generation, at the same time that Europe’s open borders have altered France’s racial makeup. 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.
Differences among the seven students regarding setting, character, and motive spiral into lively arguments that have the spirit, if not quite the bared teeth, of the classroom debates in Margaret. Like the introduction of the World Trade Center attack in Kenneth Lonergan’s film, the utterance of the word “Bataclan” during one workshop sends currents of chills and feverish outrage through the room. The massacre in Paris is conjured by Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), the gifted but alienating contrarian of the group. His prose contributions are vivid and unflinchingly violent, and his ideas seem motivated by a combination of unfeeling nihilism and regurgitated far-right canards.
The Workshop takes its time in revealing the extent of its focus on Antoine’s guarded psyche. Cantet and Campillo’s gradual pivot toward him drastically recalibrates the proceedings, effectively doubling down on the film’s bid for topicality. Olivia, too, becomes curious about Antoine to the point of distraction, combing through his social media feed and quickly discovering troubling videos: a lecture by a French nationalist, and video of Antoine and his friends playing with a gun. The implications that Antoine could become a mass shooter (or at least a racist agitator) are pervasive, and at its best, the film subtly hints that this teen’s identity appears to be completely provisional. Antoine is the proverbial loner who spends too much time online, but Lucci gives surprising depth to his character, leaning into Antoine’s contradictions.
In its clumsily rehearsed mannerisms, Lucci’s performance suggests that Antoine is so tired of failing to live up to a certain masculine ideal that he’s become bored with himself, an impasse that coaxes him into a contrarian performativity that he seems deeply ambivalent about. (He’s more recalcitrant among a group of friends and family that appears nearly as diverse as his writing group.) The film comes to hinge on Olivia and Antoine’s fascination with each other, and his increasing boldness around her. Both are drawn to the lurid and are innately inclined to free-speech absolutism, which sets them apart from the more progressive and politically correct teenagers in the program. Those students, so distinctive and vibrant early on, come to seem more and more like an undifferentiated mass as the film progresses. (Also, no one seems to think it’s strange that such a large group of people could create a cohesive novel.) In the same manner, many of the discussions about identity politics, classism, and the role of art in provoking society come to feel cribbed from our social feeds, recurring frequently and leading nowhere.
Similarly, the film sends Antoine’s exploration of the boundaries of taste and social convention down some frustrating, dubious avenues. Campillo’s insistence on building political art out of highly individual human stories contrasts well with Cantet’s existential bent and studied distance from his characters, but the film’s daunting tapestry of social fissures tends to overwhelm both artists’ best tendencies. Cantet opens The Workshop with a full-screen shot of an adventure video game, and by the film’s end, this and other instances of the filmmakers profiling Antoine begin to feel somewhat blithe and undercooked. Other elements of their portraiture, though, are fascinating: Antoine’s relationship with his own body is striking, as the teenager is constantly shown working out and filming himself diving from cliffs, all out of some vain hope that his future physique could function as a new type of mask to wear. Lucci deftly carries the weight of all the symptoms that The Workshop loads upon Antoine, a resonant character whose inscrutability is at once dangerous, sympathetic, and eerily apt.