Film Review: The Workshop

Question-raising and topical, this latest effort from two of the smartest filmmakers around disappoints in being too predictable and far from deep.
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Director Laurent Cantet’s The Class (2008) was a true stunner, bracingly intelligent and brilliantly shot in a narrative approximation of vérité with a thrilling charge. With his screenwriter from that film, Robin Campillo (BPM), he has fashioned another treatise about current-day youth in France, this time set in a summer writing class in the seaside town of La Ciotat, now fallen on hard times from its heyday as a center of shipbuilding.

The students are a racially diverse bunch, their main assignment being to write a novel under the mentorship of Olivia Dejazet (Marina Foïs, concerned but unexciting), a best-selling crime novelist. The kids decide to make it a thriller about a murder that takes place in the dockyards of a luxury yacht manufacturer. In hashing the story out all manner of topical subjects, including the republicanism of France and deep-seated personal differences, arise. 

As in The Class, the students are all played by nonprofessionals, and one can imagine the filmmakers took advantage of their various youthful experiences and personal attitudes. One especially fraught discussion centers around the horrific massacre at the Bataclan Theater in Paris in 2015. Some very disturbing input comes courtesy of Antoine (Matthieu Lucci, committed but lacking a certain charisma desperately needed for this role), the surly class contrarian, constantly invoking his outsider proletariat status and creepy right-wing views. “Haven’t we all wanted to kill somebody at one time or another?” is the question he bizarrely posits, to the outrage of his fellow students, particularly one outspoken Muslim girl.

Although the film is unfailingly smart and unafraid to be provocative, it unfortunately shares too many things in common with The Class. It pales by comparison. Where the earlier film seemed to have infinite range and reach, this one, well shot as it is and for all of its up-to-the-minute attempts at French teen immediacy (including the raucous, formulaic music favored by this generation), is much more lightweight, not to mention a tad trite and self-conscious.

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