Directed by Laurent Cantet
This fiction centers on a teacher-student relationship that becomes a dangerous game as the characters discover more about each other. French helmer Laurent Cantet earned credit with works such as “The Class”, “Time Out”, and “Human Resources”, observant considerations about France in the 90’s and 00’s. After the modest comedy-drama “Return to Ithaca”, he’s back with the humorless “The Workshop”, a film he co-wrote with Robin Campillo (“120 BPM”), which, toggling between the human drama and the slow-burning thriller, tackles France’s social reality in an interesting yet volatile way.
Marina Fois is Olivia Dejazet, a celebrated novelist who takes the challenging task of coordinating a summer social integration course for teenagers. The goal is to have the young group of participants writing a fictional noir novel set in their Southern town, La Ciotat, having the long-gone industrial prestige of the city and possibly some real experiences, helping their effort.
Because the young participants are mixed-race, the exchange of ideas sometimes brings tension, and the main ‘agent provocateur’ is Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), a sullen French-white solitaire who often shocks his colleagues with an aggressive posture marked by extremist ideas and pretentious coldness. Antoine is very intelligent, but the constant ennui in his life makes him a detached, radical person. He is strongly influenced by his cousin Teddy, whose ideas corroborate with the extreme right-wing party. They have a fixation with guns that impels them to shoot at the stars at dawn with their faces camouflaged with dirt.
In a preliminary phase, the film is dispersed and disarticulated, regardless the heated debates and the efforts of the non-professional cast to ring spontaneous. Things change gradually as the story evolves into something deeper. However, Cantet’s inability to assume a risk-taking posture never made him dug to the very bottom. Even addressing current socio-political issues of extreme importance in the group’s discussions - from ISIS to the Bataclan incident to the immigration crisis - this is all about murder, and how one can kill without a real motive.
Little by little, Olivia becomes excessively curious, even fascinated, by the self-reliant posture of her rebel student. Can he be a real threat to her and his mates? Definitely! And Olivia knows that. Still, she wants more from him, especially after hearing his keen if unpleasant remarks about one of her novels. In a way, Olivia tries to use him. She invites him to her own house and interviews him in private. She is in command, attempting to extract ideas that would serve to feed some fresh fictional character in her book. Is she helping him being a better person? Here is where exploitation bites hard, questioning a strange mutual attraction that was never too dark to impress.
If a sordid episode takes you to a dispassionate climax, the finale tries to tenderize even more what had happened. It’s a hopeful, and yet, too immediate conclusion.
Both Fois and Lucci deliver competent performances, becoming the pillars that support Cantet’s enterprise. All the way through, “The Workshop” keeps oscillating between the good and the average.