The tug-of-war between student and teacher has arguably been with us since time immemorial. It is no new scenario, but what of this tasty tussle in the modern day? Are we living in times where the struggle is heightened, our problems are deeper and the friction is fiercer?
If you were to think that the modest minimalism and nature of The Workshop’s title might infer a thematic extension to director Laurent Cantet’s most famous work to date, you might well be right. 2008’s The Class soberly gazed upon the enervating strife faced by teachers in trying to educate teenagers at an inner-city school in the French capital. At the time it felt like a temperature check of contemporary France.
Now, ten years on, Cantet has once again teamed up with his old screenplay partner Robin Campillo to look at the lay of the land. This time the setting is a summer writing workshop in La Ciotat near Marseille; with the purpose of helping a group of seven young people integrate into the world of work. One is attending in order to satisfy the job centre. ‘It’s better than mixing cement’, he says. This not-so-magnificent seven are placed under the guidance of well-known novelist Olivia Dejazet (Marina Fois) and she sets the task of each student writing a noir fiction connected with the industrial past of their hometown.
As the workshop progresses, one boy, Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), emerges as a pupil of note. Provocative and confrontational, his vehement advocacy evokes a frightening nihilism and is a source of concern. As his tutor, Olivia starts to fret extensively about this boy. He has already devised a plot that involves a mass murder and his graphic, cold writing indicates an understanding, if not affinity, with his vicious protagonist. Is he merely lonely? Or is this youth another worrying example of 21stcentury toxic masculinity? After all, Antoine frolics with guns and wiles away time, perusing far-right propaganda videos online. Disaffection writ large.
Cantet is the product of parents who were both schoolteachers and his return to an environment that looks at the relationship between pedagogue and subject appears to be something of a personal preoccupation for him. Somehow, out of simple fabric, he weaves an ornate tapestry.
Not only are we dealing with societal issues of the day including race and immigration, but he also explores where art and literature stands in a society that is becoming ever more tech-dependent and utilitarian. Is the renaissance man/woman facing obsolescence squarely in the face in a world where its value is on the decline and postmodernism has promoted cynicism?
This is not a flamboyant film (although the fact that it focuses on creative writing classes where the brief is to script a thriller, and yet, the film itself turns into a thriller is a bit, well, meta). There is argument that it could do with a tidy trim on the runtime but, on balance, this Workshop is a triumph: suggestive, thought-provoking and packing real substance.
Dir: Laurent Cantet
Prd: Denis Freyd
Scr: Robin Campillo, Laurent Cantet
Starring: Marina Foïs, Matthieu Lucci, Florian Beaujean
DOP: Pierre Milon
Editor: Mathilde Muyard
Music: Edouard Pons, Bedis Tir
Runtime: 113 minutes