BY ANDRES SOLAR
In The Workshop, lauded French filmmaker Laurent Cantet (2008’s Palme d’Or winner The Class) delivers a remarkable artwork that delicately explores the developing mind of a high school boy and the machinations of teenagedom that hammer daily at his soul. From his writing workshop teacher, his family, and especially from his peers and the internet, Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) receives metaphorical blows of varying power, intent on sculpting him into something of their liking.
From the outset, it’s clear that the workshop of Miss Olivia Dejazet (played beautifully by Marina Foïs) presents a microcosm of French society in the 21st Century. The more traditionally European characters Antoine, Benjamin (Florian Beaujean), and Dejazet herself act as the primary instigators. Whether consciously or not, they quickly take the reins, leaving the others in often defensive postures. The two Muslim children, a boy and a girl, along with a French boy of African origin, find themselves increasingly fending off Antoine, the most aggressive of the bunch. Though not a complete zealot—indeed Cantet seems to argue that a person in their teens can hardly be a complete anything—Antoine does stumble into provocative racial affronts.
But The Workshop doesn’t so much “tackle” complex issues (We love our war and football terminology in the United States, don’t we?) as much as it simply sets them out for the viewer’s perusal. The movie is set in summer, and Cantet’s languid pace serves the setting while also giving the moviegoer time to really think about the proceedings, the characters, and most especially the characters’ motivations. The euphemistic “national identity problem,” for instance, forces itself on children and adults alike, and each must find a satisfactory position, even if only to get through the day without a fistfight.
Thoroughly multi-layered, the Antoine character fascinates, and the young actor Lucci’s insightful performance deserves all the praise it has received and more. The middle-aged novelist and workshop teacher Dejazet exudes a subdued neurosis that her students nevertheless pick up on. In an after-class scene where the kids walk together to the bus stop, they express contempt of their instructor which ranks no less than vicious. And yet, at workshop the next day, most are respectful, even admiring of their guide. Here, the power of peer dynamics plays out.
Again, Antoine is the exception. In and out of class, he enjoys verbally tangling with his ostensibly sensible teacher. The teen, who works out and talks about joining the army, is nearly always a personification of tension. The friction between Miss Dejazet and her student is ever present. Their tussling also attains a measure of sexual chemistry, though it’s not clear whether the instructor is complicit or simply trying to steer the troubled boy in the right direction, as she professes.
As symbols for the general mindset of older teens, Cantet subtly, effectively uses swimming and cliff diving—Antoine’s preferred recreations. The deep blue waters of La Ciotat in southern France represent all of life itself, which a young person sees stretched out before them. The diving is relief from the yearning to be through with schooling and to, at long last, dive into living as an adult.
Cinematographer Pierre Milon’s (Foxfire ) camera is mostly handheld and loose, and if it looks a beat behind the action at times, well, so too are we adults when trying to keep up with our children. Like the students in the writing workshop, Cantet and Milon consider past and present in their storytelling, and the handheld camera emphasizes immediacy and the present tense. The film’s freshness and even its timeliness are bolstered by Milon’s casual yet savvy style.
All these layers, masterfully assembled by the writer-director, produce a portrait of a teenage boy struggling against myriad forces tearing at him. In any case, he feels pushed and pulled, and he repeatedly voices his disdain for it. “I don’t need any help,” he insists. Here, in a French film of all places, is the detailed and sensitive look we so dearly need in the United States in order to understand the phenomenon of the masculinity-threatened, boy mass murderer. The “school shooters.” (We became comfortable long ago with the euphemism for them.)
The ultra-violent, “first-person shooter” video games. The loudmouth extremist on YouTube aiming his bullhorn at children vulnerable if for no other reason than the jarring effects of raging hormones. The absent parents. The teasing peers. The guns. The caring teacher. This is a day in the life of Antoine, and we would do well to look and listen closely to him. He could be the Parkland, Florida killer. He could grow up to be the Las Vegas mass murderer.
It’s a credit to Cantet’s narrative integrity that this thrilling, pressure cooker of a film doesn’t need much bombast to make its points. In carefully constructing this story and thoughtfully placing boundaries, he shares a fuller, richer examination of the personal issues behind the explosive headlines of our day. In so doing, Laurent Cantet shoots for the moon in his own measured way.
4 of 5 stars
In French with English subtitles.
An Official Selection of Festival de Cannes 2017’s Un Certain Regard, The Workshop opens in Miami exclusively at the Tower Theater on Friday, April 6th, 2018. For more information, visit: https://towertheatermiami.com/coming-soon/the-workshop-latelier