Taking a We Need to Talk About Kevin framework and updating it for modern French society, The Workshop doesn’t compare with Lynne Ramsey’s masterful forebear, but Laurent Cantet’s film approaches a volatile teen with thoughtful, three-dimensional consideration.
Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) attends a summer writing workshop led by Olivia (Marina Foïs), an author of thrillers who has a passion for sharing the gift of literature. As the small group of teens begin to work on their shared assignment to write a novel about La Ciotat (their French Riviera coastal hometown), Antoine’ murder mystery idea wins out. However, his misanthropic ideas start to aggravate the group, causing Antoine to lash out with racist retorts that reference the tragic Bataclan shootings. Olivia sees this as a warning sign and starts to take a particular interest in her student, worrying that he might be on a path to destruction.
This all plays out in a composed, low-key manner, and matches Olivia’s emphasis on discussion and self-expression. She stands out as the only real authority figure in the film. Antoine’s parents make a brief appearance, but they mostly leave him to his own devices, at the same time lamenting his lack of communication. As a result, the drama boils down to an intimate two-hander between Antoine and Olivia. Lucci and Foïs are both convincing, and they quietly command the screen in a variety of ways. Lucci establishes a brooding darkness behind his handsome exterior, and Foïs undergoes a believable journey from subdued bystander to invested carer.
The group of young people is also well cast and they deliver naturalistic portrayals of French teens from a spectrum of backgrounds and ideologies. A sequence late on, in which the students are interviewed by a television news crew, has them all speaking to the camera about their workshop experiences. This scene plays with non-fiction form and reminds the viewer that they are not, for all the realism on display, watching a documentary.
The film’s utilization of social media and Internet technology is well conceived and executed. It opens, jarringly, with screen-captured footage of Antoine playing a high fantasy video game (in 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, no less). Further Internet usage fills the screen as Antoine watches army recruitment commercials and clips of a local maritime disaster. It’s quietly chilling stuff and takes viewers into the mind of a troubled youth, albeit a character who’s not simply a dark vortex of hate and anger, but a creative and expressive young person disillusioned by life, as he knows it.
The Workshop is attractively lensed, with the striking Mediterranean scenery milked for both beautiful brightness and consuming darkness. Stunning white cliffs are composed bracingly against vibrant ocean blues and Antoine’s frequent swims see him dissolve into the azure ripples as if he’ll never be seen again. Cantet and his cinematographer, Pierre Milon, are just as interested in this environment when the sun goes down. The darkness weighs heavy upon the shimmering lights of the mainland, as Antoine and his cousin’s friends take a boat out to a quiet island. These moments add a storybook feel to the film’s setting. The shoreline is seemingly dotted with pirates’ coves and other dark places, lit ever so slightly by the luminous moon and the glittering stars. The looming docks become huge monuments to an industrial past, with towering container cranes like great metal beasts now ground to a halt.
Like Visages, villages and Claire’s Camera, The Workshop continues a Cannes 2017 trend for the unmatched power of creation and artistic expression, and this film reaches to darker depths than those tales. Here, literature can help to process acts of terror. When Antoine shares his first violent excerpt, Olivia encourages her students to discuss and challenge each other’s opinions, rather than quelling the flames. It’s an important message and one that the film stands by absolutely.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.