What it's about: Olivia Dejazet is a popular thriller writer who spends a summer leading a writing workshop for a group of diverse teens in a small French town. The group argue over what kind of novel they should collaboratively write, focusing on a thriller but unsure of who should be the villain. Over their discussions, politics inevitably comes up, with a disaffected young man with alt-right leanings named Antoine provokes his peers with anti-Muslim rhetoric and shocking views on violence. Olivia sees something in Antoine that she can use in her work, so she often singles him out, challenging his worldview. Getting too close to her pupil might put Olivia in harm's way of a rapidly radicalized and angry young man.
The Workshop's high concept of setting the characters into a classroom setting is an effective way of having an open dialogue on the racial and economic problems in France and the rapidly changing political sphere. Secondarily, how these issues can be addressed through art. The kids have the right mix of passion and naivety, with Olivia able to channel their beliefs and feelings into something more cogent.
Using the thriller as a medium to explore these issues isn't accidental, either, as genre filmmaking has become a primary source of unpacking political discourse [hell, the newest Purge movie just came out].
After increasing arguments about the motivations of their still undefined fictional killer, Olivia explains to the group that a writer can use controversial characters without endorsing them. It feels like a genuine breakthrough and becomes one of the most important themes of the film through its second half, which moves a bit away from the workshop setting into a more traditional character study of one of its members.
The use of what seems like documentary news footage of the town's once-vibrant shipyard [a possible setting for the workshop's collaboration] is another interesting tie-in between fact and fiction within the film and the importance of art. The teens are told that research is vital when writing a novel, even if it is purely fiction, as realism will only be of benefit. The footage, though brief, gives a better understanding of the place this film takes place in, one that has a complicated immigrant history that has become more volatile with economic deterioration.
The Workshop no doubt is at its best in the long workshop discussions. The characters are vibrant, their arguments define them thoroughly. The political and artistic nature of these discussions also provide all the narrative tension the film needs.
The plot outside of these scenes, especially in the second half of the film, seem to reach too far for dramatic and thematic resonance. The Workshop tries to be provocative by tapping into the life of a seemingly normal kid whose isolation is tempted by radical political ideas. It is a similar story heard on the news after any mass shooting. Unfortunately, The Workshop doesn't actually say much, certainly not anything new, with Antoine.
Strangely, the film could maybe have used some of its own advice by making Antoine someone the viewer truly has to reckon with. He's an interesting character, certainly, and a realistic one. The film spends a lot of time showing how seemingly normal he is -- normal family, he has a good relationship with his young niece and sister, etc. But the dramatic turns the film takes toward the end feel unearned.
Granted, The Workshop clearly builds to its ending, I just couldn't find it all that compelling. It seems to want to explode and yet it falls flat. On the surface, The Workshop itself turning into something of a thriller is another interesting parallel to the workshop. But when the motivations of the complex characters become simple and strange, it just doesn't work as well.
I haven't seen director Laurent Cantet's previous film, Palme d'or winner and Oscar nominee The Class, but The Workshop seems to be within the filmmaker's wheelhouse. I was interested to see as the credits rolled that Robin Campillo served as co-screenwriter, as I've really appreciated his work with Eastern Boys and BPM (Beats Per Minute). I can definitely see his storytelling in the film but that only makes The Workshop a little more disappointing. I'm not sure what may have been lost in translation, but this film doesn't have the same clever observational style -- at least not when the film turns into a broader story.