It’s been a decade since Laurent Cantet won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for The Class, and his latest film The Workshop sees him returning to somewhat similar territory. Taking place over a summer in the south of France, The Workshop follows novelist Olivia (Marina Foïs) overseeing a writing workshop where teenagers collaborate on a novel. The students decide to write a thriller, and as the development process continues Olivia takes an interest in Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), a member of the group who constantly provokes through his writing and bigoted remarks.
The first half follows the development process, which involves Olivia and her students sitting around talking about storytelling and how to approach writing their novel. Cantet co-wrote the screenplay with BPM director Robin Campillo, and much of the compelling approach to group discussions from both Campillo’s film and The Class show up here as well. Cantet, using improvisation and intensive preparation with his actors, creates a sense of urgency to these conversations, as we can feel a real sense of passion from these characters as they try to deal with some of the bigger questions that come with undertaking their project. Cantet and Campillo’s previous films show how adept they are at making conversations crackle, so it comes as no surprise that these scenes make up the best parts of The Workshop.
It’s in the second half, where Cantet hones in on Antoine to make a broader statement about contemporary politics, that the film fumbles. It’s laid out in plain terms that Antoine’s lashing out comes more from a place of isolation and boredom than anything else, but as Cantet’s intentions become clearer the film’s specificity suffers. Antoine becomes less of a unique individual and more of a representation of disaffected youth in the Trump/Le Pen era, and the involvement of alt-right ideas and other current references feel shoehorned in compared to the naturalism of everything else. By the final act, The Workshop turns itself into a thriller, a twist that the film thinks is far more clever than it actually is (now they’re living the situation they’ve been talking about the whole time!). And much like its handling of Antoine, the leaning on genre elements hurts the specificity of the drama already established. The film feels like it’s building up to a bang, only to end with a bit of a whimper.
Still, some credit is due to Cantet for making a go at a more relevant film. There’s something nice about watching a film that can command so much attention out of seven characters just talking about how to build a story. Cantet has a knack for making lively dramas out of what seems like very little, an achievement that already helped him receive one of cinema’s highest awards, and further reason why he continues making work that’s worth seeing.