Thursday 13 September 2018

The Workshop (France 2017: Dir Laurent Cantet)

In Cantet's latest film (a kind of revisit of the ideas behind his 2008 movie The Class), a group of young people, who live in the French former dockyard town of La Ciotat, attend a summer creative writing workshop hosted by a successful author, Olivia Dejazet (Marina Foïs). 

The group is a mix of genders and ethnicities, and the workshop's aim is to create an extended story by committee through an exploration of each of the members' perspectives. Dejazet is from Paris and has two obstacles: to draw the kids out so that they contribute to the development of the story; and also to overcome the class's regional suspicions of their teacher's city bred pretensions.

It's apparent fairly early on in the film that Dejazet, as an author herself, is filing away her observations of the class and their interactions for future use, and her 'enjoyment' of the process of creativity feels rather detached and formal - she's a writer first and teacher second. Of particular interest to her in the group is Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), who becomes the focus of the film. Antoine is almost stereotypically textbook. He plays violent video games (that old standby!), watches on line footage of far right extremist speeches, glorifies brutality and his friends (one of whom owns a gun with which Antoine gets to practise) are wayward. When he's asked to read out some of his writing he describes a scene of bloody mayhem with a person of colour as the perpetrator.

Antoine is unrepentant of and in both his views and constant references to and glorification of the Bataclan massacre, and when challenged by the rest of the group his response is to further distance himself from them; it's clearly not going to end well, particularly when he takes to hiding in the trees to spy on his teacher in her rented apartment. Dejazet is both appalled and fascinated by Antoine, even going so far as to access his social media accounts to build up a better picture of him and his friendship circle - she doesn't like what she finds.

In developing their story, the group's reaction to their environment is interesting- La Ciotat was once a bustling shipyard town, the decline in industry leaving only the abandoned skeletons of cranes towering over the area. The students' willingness to embrace the past or reject it splits the class and their discussions about whether or not La Ciotat should be the setting for the story.

But once these points are made, watching two hours of The Workshop's admittedly very well and naturally put together scenes - of its young class struggling to bring something creative into the world, while pursuing friendships, getting into arguments and generally knuckling down to the project - starts to obey the law of diminishing returns. And the film's central idea - that of the development of the written project - is gradually set aside in favour of concentrating on the relationship between Antoine and Dejazet, the latter being a largely uninteresting character. What could have been a far shorter film concentrating on how the group reconcile their diverse views morphs into a thriller of its own with an increasingly unbelievable denouement. A pity.

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