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.