March 20, 2018

‘The Workshop’: teen angst in a post-Charlie Hebdo France

By Harry Windsor
Image from ‘The Workshop’
Laurent Cantet’s new film explores the lure of political extremism for the young and bored

Laurent Cantet’s L’Atelier (The Workshop) got a bit lost in the shuffle at Cannes last year, where it was overshadowed by another French premiere, the Grand Prix-winning BPM (Beats Per Minute). Robin Campillo, who directed BPM, also co-wrote The Workshop, and in many ways it’s a fascinating companion piece, as well as a culmination of the filmmaking project Cantet and Campillo, who attended film school together, have been pursuing for the last two decades.

Campillo was best known as an editor and screenwriter on Cantet’s films before he turned to directing with 2004’s They Came Back (later adapted for TV, where it became the wildly successful Les Revenants). Their latest collaboration began percolating 20 years ago, when Campillo was working as a TV editor and saw a story about an English novelist running a creative writing workshop for French teens. Cantet wanted to set the film in the French coastal city of La Ciotat, at the time reeling from the closure of its shipyard in 1986.

The setting remains, though the context has shifted. In the ’90s, Cantet says, the film would have been about young people coming to terms with the city’s working-class past. “Nowadays that past has lost all meaning [for them], but I nevertheless thought the workshop was an interesting way to make the youngsters talk about how they felt.”

Cantet and Campillo returned to the idea in 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. “The world is different [now],” says Cantet. “The world is more violent. In little cities such as La Ciotat, youngsters are often very bored. That’s what I really wanted to look at.”

French star Marina Foïs signed on when the filmmakers realised they needed a local actor (rather than an English one, per the real-life inspiration) to pull off the verbal cut-and-thrust that powers the film. A fan of Cantet’s work, Foïs jumped at the opportunity. “To be perfectly honest, I would have said yes to any proposal. And the subject of this film interested me: how to reduce the gap between generations, how we as adults can make room for the younger generation and stop despising them.”

Foïs plays Olivia, a glamorous Parisian novelist who is simultaneously repelled and fascinated by Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), the prickliest member of her creative writing group. Antoine loves baiting the Muslim members of the workshop, and often seems to make arguments in bad faith. He’s a loner who plays with guns and watches far-right demagogues on YouTube (as well as instructional videos about building his abs). If he’s not at home on his computer or at the workshop, he’s swimming off the cliffs, as though pushing against the physical limits of his humdrum everyday world.

Like the other teenagers in the film, Lucci was a non-professional spotted by Cantet’s casting director. “He was having a fag with his pals outside school,” laughs Cantet. “Don’t tell his parents he was smoking.” The actor is coolly riveting in the film, with the curled bottom lip of a young Vincent Cassel. “He fitted what I wanted, which was a character who could be almost frightening and at the same time impossible to accept as such: he had this very teenage thing about him that made what he was acceptable. I didn’t want us to judge the character.”

Foïs is equally effusive about her young leading man. “He was a fascinating partner. You could really relate to whatever he was playing. You could be fearful, fascinated, seduced. I think we’ll be hearing a lot about him. I spoke to his parents, who are quite worried, but I’m not worried at all.”

Cantet rehearsed with the group for two weeks, and Foïs joined a week before shooting began. The two leads rehearsed a key scene in which Olivia interviews Antoine about his life – purportedly to help her with her fiction. There’s a kind of ethnographic condescension to the interrogation, and one of the threads yanked on by Antoine is Olivia’s failure to really inhabit characters from a background vastly different to her own. “Antoine reproaches Olivia for being the puppeteer, and obviously these are the kind of questions that I’m asking myself when I’m working with young people,” says Cantet. The solution, he says, is a long rehearsal process, and lengthy conversations.

As in BPM or Cantet’s Palme d’Or-winning The Class (2008), his newest film is about the group dynamic, though the filmmaker thinks The Workshop has more in common with his 2001 feature Time Out. “Antoine resembles the main character in Time Out. He’s a wanderer, and he’s always expecting [that] something will pop up and change his life. He’s also constantly making fiction.” The noir story spit-balled by the group over several sessions is both a reflection of their identities and a way to escape them. And gradually, as Antoine begins following Olivia home, the film starts to resemble a thriller.

Antoine is frustrated by the inability of his peers to follow an idea to its logical, if unpalatable, end. But his presumption that most people at least think about killing gives Olivia pause. The Workshop might be about the lure of political extremism for the young and despairing, but it’s not prescriptive, and the film’s coda is hopeful. “My films are not sociological treatises,” says Cantet. “The story comes first, and the story is always conveyed by a character. What interests me is that it’s the literary process that helps Antoine. As he manages to find the appropriate words to speak about his boredom – and his violence – he’s able to overcome both.”

The Workshop is playing at the Alliance Française French Film Festival.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a Sydney-based writer.

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