A writing class becomes a stand-in for societally tense France in ‘The Workshop’

  • Matthieu Lucci plays a troubled writing student and Marina Foïs plays his teacher. Strand Releasing via Washington Post

Washington Post
Thursday, April 12, 2018

Written and directed by Laurent Cantet, The Workshop asks: How might a young man come to embrace right-wing terrorism?

An extension of the French filmmaker’s The Class, a 2008 drama depicting schoolroom dynamics in the style of a documentary, The Workshop brings the same realism to bear here, within the added context of contemporary Europe’s economic and cultural anxiety. It is not exactly a thriller, yet its plausibility will inspire very real anxiety.

Marina Foïs plays Olivia, a crime novelist who is teaching several college-age students how to write. Together they collaborate on a murder mystery, using their home town of La Ciotat, on the southern coast of France, and its long-abandoned shipyard as a backdrop.

The students are engaged and bright, except for one loner, Antoine (Matthieu Lucci). He wants the story to focus on brutal violence, evoking the 2015 and 2016 terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, putting everyone else on edge. As the film shifts its attention from the class to the anti-immigrant fringe groups with which Antoine has begun flirting, there is discomfort: Will he make his dark vision a reality?

For a film that is otherwise defined by genuine emotion and organic dialogue, Cantet has chosen a bizarre opening image: a snippet from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a popular role-playing video game in which a player assumes the persona of a sword-for-hire in a medieval fantasy land. It eventually becomes clear that Antoine may have taken the game’s escapism – and white hero – more personally than most. Despite this and other similarly fragmented clues, The Workshop never lets us know exactly what anyone really thinks. These tantalizing clues only add to the film’s allure.

Anchored by Foïs’ performance as the curious and cosmopolitan novelist, the classroom scenes neatly encapsulate real tensions in today’s France. Her students – a diverse group including children of African immigrants – find common ground in mocking the teacher’s Parisian accent.