Laurent Cantet / France / 2016 / 113 mins
Part of the French Film Festival UK 2017
After a couple of critical disappointments with his last two offerings Return to Ithaca and Foxfire, writer/director Laurent Cantet returns to the subject matter which scooped him the Palme d’Or in 2008 with The Class. This time, a group of mismatched youngsters of various ethnicities gather together under the tutelage of successful writer Olivia (Marina Foïs) to collaboratively write and publish a crime novel about the downtrodden coastal town they call home.
As always with Cantet films, the story’s dynamism comes from its dialogue rather than action. Little by little, we’re introduced to each of the teenagers’ backgrounds, idiosyncrasies and political views as they discuss which direction their plot should take. As well as encompassing various contemporary issues such as economic instability, the dearth of employment opportunities for young people in fringe towns and the rise of the far right, this approach gradually homes in on one particular attendee of the workshop, the brooding and apparently bigoted Antoine (Mathieu Lucci).
Antoine’s flair for prose is offset by his troubling world views and his tendency to provoke others in the group, making him a disturbingly fascinating subject of observation – not only for the audience, but also for Olivia herself. As she attempts to delve beneath his hostile exterior, we’re led into the psyche of a youth who feels let down and left behind by modern society. In light of global politics and the glut of recent terrorist attacks, it’s a timely and important topic of contemplation.
It’s remarkable that all seven of the youths who attend the workshop are played by non-professional actors, with Lucci in particular standing out as one to watch for the future. The pace of the writing is measured but not laboured, and a constant undercurrent of tension, violence and even sex is bubbling underneath the surface of every scene. Unfortunately, the simmering never reaches a full rolling boil and even at its climax, the film fizzles rather than sparks.
Not to say that it would necessarily have benefited from a more dramatic denouement, but in a film that hinges on the writing of a crime thriller, it’s a little disappointing that the finale relies so heavily on a trope of the genre (even if things might not turn out as expected). In any case, The Workshop is a thoroughly engaging exploration of disenchanted youth and a welcome return to form for Cantet – it just maybe could have incorporated a little less conversation, or perhaps a little more direction to its chatter, in this particular case.