By Travis Merchant.
Recently, the rise of extreme right-wing groups and individuals have done more than upset the quotidian structure to society. More often than not, these individuals seem bent on violence and nationalistic tendencies. It began with the criticism of the European Union and the sudden, unpredicted secession of the United Kingdom from the coalition; it continues today with the rise of other countries in Europe dealing with the threat of leaving the EU.
It’s in the tension between the far-right ideology and other members of society that Laurent Cantet’s The Workshop lies, and the film discovers a missing conversation along with that tension. The film centers on Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) and his relationship to other teenagers in a writing workshop under the direction of an established thriller writer, Olivia (Marina Foïs). This film feels all too real at certain moments, almost as if Canet documents this group of teenagers discussing the politics and dangers of the current climate. He stokes the worries of viewers by prodding at “the other side” and seeks to display how someone with extreme right-wing views may view the world around him. In this struggle, Antoine – someone who seems violent and far-right – provides an odd spotlight to those same individuals in the real world, especially through the powerful performance by the first-time actor. The film builds into an escalating thriller that teases viewers and keeps us guessing until its closing moments, all while the eerie score and sound design try to highlight how Antoine experiences his world.
The meta-fictional narrative of The Workshop provides a glaring glimpse into the political climate of modern day while remaining focused on its exploration of the main character. This reveals itself within the debates and discussions of the novel that the group of teenagers are writing for the workshop. In many of the workshop scenes, the flow of conversation between the students and writer is not forced. Instead, the film almost takes an improvisational documentary approach, and scenes seem rushed through because of the building tension between the characters. The rushed scenes are not a hinderance to the film’s impact and message. If anything, it seems to elevate the film with these fights that seem to be rushing towards an unpredictable outcome. The constant debates in the workshop scenes intensify the film, especially as it more closely hones in on Antoine. Because of his provocative, violent, and sometimes racist points of view, each new classroom scene and debate seem to have more weight and consequences than the last. As the film’s focus tightens around Antoine, the underlying message comes and wades just at the surface, much like Antoine’s obsession with swimming and floating with the waves of a nearby ocean. The way the narrative hides slightly below the surface brings up a question: will it follow the path of the book they are writing? Throughout the film, the discussion of this book seems to comment on the reality that surrounds them. This makes it difficult to grasp the film’s reality from fantasy, but perhaps it is on purpose, as Antoine himself is fascinated and consumed by media. It’s almost as if he can get lost in the fiction that he confronts, which makes it difficult for him to connect in his surroundings.
The acting from The Workshop really drives this film, even though the majority of them are nonprofessional. The documentary performance style harks back to Cantet’s 2008 Palme D’Or winner, The Class. This makes the conversations feel natural because the actors are obviously playing off each other and voicing their point of views. The debates feel real at times, as if everything wasn’t scripted. The way people overlap over each other don’t have the awkward pauses of regurgitating lines. Instead, it sounds and acts like a normal conversation. The highlight performance from this film is the powerhouse one from first-time actor, Matthieu Lucci. Lucci, as Antoine, very clearly displays his emotional distance, most of the time, from the other teenagers of the workshop and broods silently with cold eyes and a stern stare. However, these moments help to accentuate the only times Antoine feels joy: when he finds something “new” to do in his reality or participates in the media that consumes his attention. In the same way, the film seeks to envelop every sense of the viewer to invite them inside this fictional reality.
The soundscape of The Workshop, coupled with the glowing and bright cinematography and juxtaposing images of different pieces of media, envelop the viewer and force them into Antoine’s perspective. From the opening shot, a viewer can immediately see how Antoine thinks and feels. The film begins with a scene from The Witcher 3, an action adventure video game, that displays the player-character going to the top of a mountain and practicing his fighting skills and shooting arrows at the sun. The film then cuts to Antoine floating in the waters of the ocean. These two shots immediately give viewers an idea of Antoine’s character, one consumed by media and spending most of his time alone. The film begins with a hopeful soundtrack with swelling strings which evolve as discussions about the thriller novel take place. The score begins to sound like the typical soundtrack of a thriller, but only when Antoine is alone. The film implies that his struggle to define himself could bring out his darker side: the one that believes in the anti-EU crowd he witnesses in YouTube videos and falls into the violence that he practices in the video games. The sounds of the film become increasingly enclosed around Antoine, leaving a viewer guessing what will happen. In a pivotal scene near the end of the film, the image is so dark that most of the cues an audience member can receive are only through the sound. It focuses on how Antoine experiences his own world and brings about a change in him when he then tries to reach to the world around him and listen to the waves crashing along the beach he cherishes.
The film’s tone and treatment of politics can come across as questionable for some, but it does not seek to absolve Antoine. It doesn’t forgive him for his views or even admit that he may be right or wrong. Instead, the film tries to show why he may believe the things he says, why he follows certain ideas, or even what his dreams could actually be. When The Workshop shows Antoine smile and living a life he may be comfortable with, it does so in order to remind the viewers that he, like themselves, is a human just trying to find meaning.
Travis Merchant is the Image Editor for Film International and an instructor at Wake Technical Community College and NC State University. He has written for Film Matters and presented at the sixth and seventh annual Visions Film Festival and Conference.