'The Workshop' ('L'Atelier'): Film Review | Cannes 2017

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A smart social thriller that blurs the lines between reality and fiction.

French director Laurent Cantet, who won the Palme d’Or in 2008 for 'The Class,' is back in Cannes with a new film starring Marina Fois and Matthieu Lucci.

French writer-director Laurent Cantet is perhaps best known for his 2008 Palme d’Or-winning docudrama The Class, but some of his earlier films — especially the haunting unemployment saga Time Out and the taut workplace drama Human Resources — reveal a predilection for dark, character-based thrillers where the line between reality, fiction and a certain kind of madness is not always easy to discern.

These elements are all bound together in his latest feature, The Workshop (L’Atelier), an intense yet true-to-life story about an accomplished writer’s relationship with a student who troubles her as much as he leaves her constantly intrigued. Featuring sharp performances from Marina Fois (Polisse) and promising newcomer Matthieu Lucci, the film shows Cantet returning to form — and to France — after making several movies overseas, with a story that pursues the themes of his best work while underscoring some of the issues currently facing his homeland. A slot in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard should help push this smart suspenser into foreign territories.

Co-written with usual collaborator Robin Campillo (whose 120 Beats Per Minute is playing the Cannes competition), the film starts off as a quasi-documentary set in the working-class Mediterranean city of La Ciotat, where a group of mixed-race students (all of them played by non-actors) participate in a writing workshop lead by Parisian author Olivia (Fois). The class is supposed to work on a collective crime novel that will be published later on, but as the story in the film unravels, the movie itself grows more and more fraught with tension when one of Olivia’s students — the clever and somewhat outspoken Antoine (Lucci) — starts behaving in unsettling ways.

Shy at first, Antoine comes into his own when, in one of the film’s most powerful scenes, he reads aloud a chilling writing sample depicting a mass shooting on a yacht at the local harbor. The event is fictional, but his descriptions are both unnervingly realistic and thematically apt, particularly given the climate in France after the terrorist attacks of the last two years.

The rest of the students reject the grim violence of Antoine’s writing, as well as the underlying racism with which he critiques some of their own work, but Olivia’s interest is clearly piqued, and she takes a liking to the boy that soon borders on the obsessional — a feeling that her pupil reciprocates, if not initiates, when he begins to stalk her around town.

Cantet dishes out the major plot strands in an effective if leisurely manner, focusing at first on the class itself, as well as on specificity of the setting. (La Ciotat was once a major shipbuilding center until its industry fell apart in the 1970s and 80s, with the dockyards now reconditioned to fabricate luxury cruisers.) He then gradually hones in on his two main characters as their relationship becomes more problematic, especially after Antoine criticizes one of Olivia’s books for its over-stylized phoniness.

Olivia kicks him out of the group for being so outspoken and insulting, but Antoine’s words stick with her. When she does some online investigating, she learns that he and his friends support an extreme-right politician and like to play around with loaded guns. Those are obviously alarming signs, but Olivia’s interest in her student stretches beyond issues of mere safety into a fascination that’s both intellectual and at times, erotic: Antoine’s mind, born out of a struggling family and city, works in ways that a privileged writer like her could only imagine, while his body remains a vague object of desire as he goes for his daily swim sessions along La Ciotat’s breathtaking shoreline.

As The Workshop progresses, it moves from a first act reminiscent of The Class in a more picturesque location, to something closer to Time Out and Cantet’s breakthrough Human Resources, turning into a thriller where the characters are motivated by conditions of class as much as they are by something unexplainable they carry deep down inside. Like the crime novel written by the students, where questions of La Ciotat’s industrial heritage are behind a series of local murders, the film reveals how much Olivia and Antoine are moved by their respective social positions, not to mention by the atmosphere of fear and unease that’s prevalent in France today.  

Shot in shadowy tones by regular DP Pierre Milon and backed by a hypnotic score from Bedis Tir, the film slips into considerably darker territory in the closing scenes, although the outcome is not necessarily what you would imagine. As Antoine moves to commit a final act of desperation, Cantet shows that it’s less a question of pure bloodlust — although there’s some of that too — than one of bringing Olivia over to his point of view: if she could only see what he sees, then perhaps she could begin to understand him.

Production company: Archipel 35
Cast: Marina Fois, Matthieu Lucci
Director: Laurent Cantet
Screenwriters: Robin Campillo, Laurent Cantet
Producer: Denis Freyd
Director of photography: Pierre Milon
Production designer: Serve Borgel
Editor: Antoine Baudoin
Composer: Bedis Tir
Casting director: Sarah Teper
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Sales: Films Distribution

In French
113 minutes