The predominant use of the internet and social media in life has seen a large part of us having to come to grips with the politics of our friends and family that we may not have be aware of originally. What used to best left unsaid around the dinner table now has table-less avenues to venture down. Still, your every day-to-day life can still be relied upon to throw you a curve ball during an average conversation, and how you decide to broach an aired controversial opinion will determine the course of the rest of the dialogue and, perhaps, your relationship.
This is the kind of navigation author Olivia (Marina Foïs) must tackle when she agrees to lead a summer workshop in Laurent Cantet’s (The Class) appropriately titled The Workshop. Olivia and her band of late teens/early twenty-somethings are gathered to write a novel to promote their hometown of La Ciotat. Each student initially brings their own despondency to the class, but soon her direction leads to them to think about where they come from and how it can flavour their creative juices.
Whilst the students, each representing a different facet of French culture, dissect the history of La Ciotat, it’s the country’s recent history that underpins The Workshop. Olivia’s attention slowly begins to focus on Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), a talented writer with a huge chip on his shoulder. Seemingly content to drift, he makes veiled comments about the others in the group, loading up terms like ‘you lot’ with enough passive aggressiveness to sink a ship. He stays up late and watches YouTube videos of Marine Le Pen type politicians lamenting the loss of true French culture.
This first half of the film, with its meaty political discourse and discussion of identity, is what makes The Workshop strong. France has been hit by several terrorist attacks over the last few years – The Bataclan shootings are brought up here regularly – and they appear to have coloured Antoine’s attitude to anyone not white. But is he racist, or just kicking against the pricks in a small town? This is the question The Workshop attempts to answer. His writing highlights a violent, but creative thought process, which he undermines by slinging racial epithets at his classmates who feel marginalised by his work. Fois plays Olivia as someone who doesn’t agree with what is being said but wants to be able to the tease dark side of Antoine out and away from him. It’s never explained satisfactorily why she wouldn’t just kick him out due to his constant disregard for others, but then perhaps Olivia doesn’t really understand either. He is belligerent and critical of her work, and for some reason this fascinates her.
Unfortunately, as we flop over into the second half, The Workshop derails slightly. Cantet tries to hint at some sexual tension between the two, but it never feels believable. It’s as if both characters are merely playing a role of Facebook stalking the other. Equally, a deliberate vagueness to the creation of Antoine’s alt-right beliefs is thrown under the bus in a denouement that feels lazy and cliched. Perhaps this feeling of despondency is down to Cantet attempting to play with the tropes of the thriller genre. The first half of the film sees Olivia and her class dissect the idea of what tropes make up the genre, which then begins to bleed into the actual narrative of the film. Except, this never seems to go anywhere. Admittedly, as Olivia points out, life is nothing like the heightened reality of art and so we, the audience, shouldn’t expect every film with a dangerous liaison to pan out like Sleeping with the Enemy. That’s true, but that doesn’t stop The Workshop from failing to stick its landing in the final minutes.
Naturalistic performances, gorgeous provincial scenery and healthy debates are reason enough to be engaged by The Workshop. Just be mindful of an empty feeling of wanting more when the credits roll.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10
– ‘The Workshop’ will be screening at this year’s 2018 Alliance Française French Film Festival.