As a first time actor, there very few safer pairs of hands than those of Laurent Cantet to guide you through your debut film. With his 2008 masterpiece The Class, Cantet took dozens of unprofessional kids and marshalled them into compelling characters within a hugely involving story. With his latest, The Workshop, he proves just as adept with his cast, though the story that surrounds them finds itself trapped in a muddled malaise just as often as it proves successful.
Almost like a spiritual sequel to The Class, The Workshop follows a group of academically promising but school-weary kids in the limbo between finishing compulsory education and finding the next stage of their lives. They are assigned to a creative writing class, led by successful thriller author Olivia Dejazet (Marina Fois), with the end goal being communally writing and publishing their own murder mystery. For the most part, the group is happy to be there, but provocative wildcard Antoine (Mathieu Lucci) starts sending things down a darker path. He has ‘alt-right wierdo’ vibes positively emanating from his being, which sets the other kids at edge and leaves Olivia unhealthily fascinated by him.
The obsessive, lonely dynamic between Olivia and Antoine is definitely The Workshop’s strongest strand, Cantet and co-writer Robin Campillo (director of 120 BPM) drawing smart and intriguing links between isolation and extremist thought. They’re aided immensely by Lucci, who gives a confidently cold and detached performance that you’d never guess was a first cinematic appearance, for which Cantet is due no end of credit. However, Cantet and Campillo never satisfyingly mesh this story with the rest of the film, and there’s such a mess of disparate themes and ideas going on at any one time that any overall message becomes unclear.
Though the kids in the class are well-performed, their sessions mostly feel hollow, existing solely to push Antoine into some sort of violent or bigoted tirade rather than a realistic academic gathering. Where the world of The Class was rich and inherently dramatic, these literary debates can’t muster enough interest to hold the interest for the film’s full run. The setting of La Ciotat, a decaying industrial region on France’s south coast, is fantastic, and Antoine’s workouts on sun-soaked Mediterranean rocky outcrops bring to mind Claire Denis’s superlative Beau Travail, but you feel a little more could have been made of it. The Workshop is interesting and frustrating in equal measure.