×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Cannes Film Review: ‘The Workshop’

Laurent Cantet makes an enthralling return to form with this topical fusion of political debate session and socially conscious thriller.

Director:
Laurent Cantet
With:
Marina Foïs, Matthieu Lucci, Warda Rammach, Issam Talbi, Florian Beaujean, Mamadou Doumbia, Julien Souve, Melissa Guilbert, Olivier Thoret, Leny Sellam.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6444838/

For how long can a film level-headedly discuss the rules and mechanics of a thriller before becoming something of a thriller itself? That’s the teasing hook, but not even the most loaded question, dangled by “The Workshop,” a sly, supple and repeatedly surprising collision of literary, moral and political lines of debate that marks an enthralling return to form for writer-director Laurent Cantet. Gathering a diverse group of teens to intellectually tussle in a structured educational environment — in this case, a summer creative writing workshop moderated by an acclaimed novelist — the film initially recalls the lively docu-fiction form of Cantet’s 2008 Palme d’Or winner “The Class.” Yet Cantet isn’t out to make the same film twice, deftly wrongfooting viewers as focus is pulled by the group’s most reactionary, volatile member, brilliantly played by newcomer Matthieu Lucci. The tense, excitingly topical result is entirely its own animal, and should return its maker to the French auteur A-list.

That a Cantet film this substantial is premiering in Un Certain Regard at Cannes is reflective of the muted critical and audience reception that met his last two features, 2012’s uneven, U.S.-set “Foxfire” and 2015’s minor-key talkfest “Return to Ithaca.” After they parted ways for the latter, “The Workshop” reunites Cantet with his regular co-writer Robin Campillo (currently basking in Cannes competition acclaim for his directorial effort “BPM (Beats Per Minute)”), and happily so: Their screenplay, itself enhanced by extensive workshopping with the ensemble, bristles with both big ideas and small-scale human insight, with an acute ear for the snappy vernacular of its young stars.

Though Cantet and Campillo first conceived the project in 1999 — when many of these actors were in diapers — the finished product doesn’t betray a hint of such protracted gestation, sounding wholly of the moment as its characters voice concerns over non-urban economic crisis, recent terrorist attacks, religious radicalization and the global rise of the far right. It’s a film that would now sound even louder alarm bells in a France ruled by Marine Le Pen, but in any event, offers a sharp anatomy of the country’s present-day political sore points.

Little time is spent explaining how exactly this disparate group of outspoken teens from La Ciotat — a small coastal town in the south of France — came to sign up for a novel-writing workshop under the tutelage of Olivia Dejazet (the excellent Marina Foïs), a successful writer of grim mystery fiction. Rather, we’re plunged straight into the group sessions, gradually ascertaining their separate personalities, backgrounds and motivations from their various angles and styles of argument. The objective of the workshop is for the kids to jointly write a locally-set novel, but with only their working-class background in common — alongside mutual skepticism of what they perceive as Olivia’s posh Parisian airs — they otherwise struggle to reach any joint creative decisions. It should be a thriller, they agree: Beyond that, everything is up for discussion.

One voice swiftly emerges as dominant, and not constructively so. Antoine (Lucci) is smart but chip-on-his-shoulder hostile, and though he claims to be averse to political discussion, racist right-wing sympathies lurk just beneath the surface of his contributions to class — most contentiously, his short first-person essay, dispassionately describing a mass shooting, that unnerves and riles his peers. Among those, his most vocal sparring partner is Malika (Warda Rammach), a socially conscious Muslim whose attempts to address their town’s disenfranchised industrial past in the group project are sneeringly dismissed by Antoine as “noble.” (The soul-sickness of unemployment, so essential to Cantet’s masterful “Time Out,” hovers in the background here.)

Discord only festers further from this point. Crucially, unlike the onscreen moderator of “The Class,” Olivia is no natural teacher or diplomat. Foïs’s taut-nerved, gradually frayed performance beautifully conveys her half-hidden panic as the workshop slips out of her well-meaning control, and the limits of her social understanding are exposed. There’s a strange shadow of not-quite-sexual tension, too, between Olivia and Antoine as his place in the workshop grows more isolated and unstable, and Cantet steers proceedings into uncharted, heart-quickening waters of conflict that no responsible critic should further reveal. First-time actor Lucci — who, like the rest of the young ensemble, was enlisted through local open casting — is a frankly astounding discovery, reconciling Antoine’s frightening reserves of hatred and physical menace with an awkward, knotted innocence. It’s a performance chiefly entrusted with carrying the film through some tricky tonal transitions; he pulls it off with a pro’s swagger.

No character is glibly or thoughtlessly treated by Cantet and Campillo, who also do well to avoid blanket generalizations about contemporary adolescent behavior and awareness. The film does, however, take a keen, perceptive interest in their modern approach to storytelling rules, which are governed far more than Olivia’s by visual media, from procedural TV to YouTube to video games. Indeed, the film’s ingenious opening — directly into the digital fantasy realm of a Viking-style war game — is an immediate hint of the rug-pulling to come, as Cantet denies us the expected reverse shot of the unknown player. In “The Workshop,” the kids call the shots, and the rest of us aren’t owed any explanations.

Popular on Variety

Cannes Film Review: 'The Workshop'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 22, 2017. Running time: 113 MIN. (Original title: "L'atelier")

Production: (France) An Archipel 35, France 2 Cinema production in association with Soficinema 13, Films Distribution, Diaphana Distribution, LMC, Blaq Out, Univercine. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Producer: Denis Freyd.

Crew: Director: Laurent Cantet. Screenplay: Cantet, Robin Campillo. Camera (color): Pierre Milon. Editor: Mathilde Muyard. Music: Bedis Tir, Edouard Pons.

With: Marina Foïs, Matthieu Lucci, Warda Rammach, Issam Talbi, Florian Beaujean, Mamadou Doumbia, Julien Souve, Melissa Guilbert, Olivier Thoret, Leny Sellam.

More Film

  • Harry Connick Jr. American Idol

    Harry Connick Jr. to Receive Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

    Grammy and Emmy Award winner Harry Connick Jr will be honored with at star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame next week. The ceremony will take place on the morning of Oct. 24. “When choosing a star location, we try to incorporate ties to the honoree and this one turned out to be a coincidence [...]

  • Zombieland: Double Tap

    Film Review: 'Zombieland: Double Tap'

    The zombies have evolved in “Zombieland: Double Tap”; the comedy not so much. But that’s OK, because Ruben Fleischer’s 2009 breakout hit — which gobbled up $75.6 million in a genre fast approaching its pop-culture saturation point — was already a few steps ahead of the curve: Its central quartet actually knew they were living [...]

  • Chinese director Jia Zhangke at the

    Iconic Chinese Auteur Jia Zhangke Touts Trio of Projects at Pingyao

    No one attending the Pingyao International Film Festival can escape learning about Jia Zhangke’s upcoming projects, with the same three trailers for them playing before each and every screening. The art house icon, turned businessman is ever-present in the historic town. First off, there is a new collaboration between Jia and Momo, a Chinese social [...]

  • Plans to Build New Film Studio

    Plans for New London Film Studio Run Into Difficulties

    Plans to build a major new film and TV studio complex in London to take advantage of Britain’s production boom have run into difficulties. Be First, the local Barking and Dagenham Council’s regeneration company spearheading the project, says that Los Angeles-based developer Pacifica Ventures will no longer be involved in the project. Pacifica was selected [...]

  • La Rouei

    Lumiere Festival to Premiere Epic Restoration of 'La Roue'

    LYON, France  —  This coming Saturday and Sunday, the Lumière Festival will turn back the clock nearly one hundred years as the festival premieres a new completed reconstruction of Abel Gance’s 1923 masterpiece “La Roue” (“The Wheel”) that restores the classic to its original 7.5 hour length. Consisting of a prologue and four movements, “La [...]

  • Lina Wertmuller portrait

    Lina Wertmuller’s Exceptional Career Revisited

    In the still American-led realm of the Academy Awards, it’s unusual for the helmer of a film not in the English language to score a Best Director nomination. It’s far rarer still, meanwhile, for a woman to be nominated in the category at all: just five have done so in 91 years. Only one director, [...]

  • Fifth Seal

    Lumière Festival Honors Hungary, Screens Classics ‘Women,’ ‘The Fifth Seal’

    For the fifth year running, Lyon’s Lumière Festival will honor Hungarian cinema and invite guests of the Hungarian National Film Fund to present two classic Hungarian films from important national filmmakers, Márta Mészáros’ “Ők ketten” (“Women”) and Zoltán Fábri’s “Fifth Seal.” Both films will be presented by Lumière Festival special guest Marina Vlady on Oct [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content