French director Laurent Cantet hit a career high point with his Palme d’Or winning film The Class. His social consciousness never felt more earthy and entertaining while maintaining a complex and genuine feel. It’s a balance that is hard to achieve in any movie, much less follow up on. Evidence of that lies in a film that bears comparison, his latest, The Workshop (L’atelier). As with The Class, it was also co-written by Robin Campillo. The characters are vivid in their diversity and viewpoints, but it’s the extremes to which one character goes that compromises and maybe even cheapens the complex drama the film is driven by.
It takes place in La Ciotat, a town on the Mediterranean coast near Marseille. A diverse mix of young students gather for a creative writing workshop under the guidance of prominent crime novelist Olivia Dejazet (Marina Foïs). The workshop is supposed to make them more employable in a town where jobs have been lost over time. A shipyard once used to build giant cargo ships now only builds the occasional expensive yacht. The layers of resentment, nostalgia, class conflict, ideological and religious differences are intricately on display with same earthy confrontations that made the The Class so intriguing. The filmmakers are very aware of the current tensions, as even the Bataclan massacre comes up as one of the subjects under consideration by the participants of the workshop.
At the crux of the drama is Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), who shows extremist tendencies. It’s important to note that he is white and interested in right-wing, nationalist ideals, something that was quite timely ahead of France’s recent presidential election. Antoine is a complexly drawn character, fitting of the intricate social issues that form the foundation of the film’s drama. Though Antoine shows a playful sensitivity to one of his friend’s young sons, he is also the author of some disturbing writing in the workshop that includes a mass shooting massacre at the shipyard.
Though Antoine’s diverse fellow classmates are upset by his dramatic contribution to their collective story, Olivia becomes intrigued, but is it to the detriment of her own safety? A gun appears in the drama, and for the most part it’s presence is drawn out enough to become a symbol that speaks to terror and ideology on a complex level, but it becomes less than that when it is used as a deciding factor in a relationship. Is it enough to redeem, or forgive Antoine when the film ends on a hopeful note? This is clearly a complex issue that is shaking up France and other EU states, and deserves a more complex resolution instead of the pat, yet hopeful ending we get.
The Workshop runs 113 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is not rated (in France it’s classified as “Tous publics,” which means “for everyone”). It opens Friday, April 6, in our Miami area at MDC’s Tower Theater and further north, in Broward County at Savor Cinema. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website and click “screenings.” This is an extended review for a movie I first caught as a guest at Miami Film Festival GEMS 2017, last year (Miami Film Festival GEMS 2017 premieres 5 films coming soon).