Alliance Francaise French Film Festival Review: The Workshop (L’Atelier) isolation becomes xenophobia

Laurent Cantet’s The Workshop is the product of creative introspection, a film that reflects on the subtexts of creating a contentious political thriller, while forwarding a narrative that takes its own advice. It’s a tense and insightful film from the Palme d’Or winner that snowballs radical tensions, while offering audiences a window to Cantet’s writing process.

Taking place in La Ciotat, near the French town Marseille, The Workshop begins with an exchange of ideas. A group of seven youths, gathered under the guidance of eminent novelist Olivia Dejazet (Marina Foïs), take part in a writing workshop. As the group collectively decide the theme of their narrative, the radical ideals of young writer Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) begins to divide them, and his empathy with his own fictional murderer puts Olivia on edge.

Shot on the French Mediterranean, The Workshop creates a scenic map for the pitfall of Antoine’s ambition. La Ciotat has become a shadow of the town it had been twenty-five years prior, thanks to the closure of its historical industrial port. And as splendid as the town remains, the opportunities for the youth are fleeting. Here Cantet leaves Antoine in isolation, with the Bataclan tragedy in his memory and a far-right commentator in his ear.

Cantet’s vision for Antoine’s combative politics is unique in this way. It stems from boredom, not from his families history or a single past event. Antoine’s final reading provides context to this, and the pathos and apathy of the character is buoyed by a commanding performance from Matthieu Lucci. As Europe extends its period of political divergence, The Workshop’s protagonist offers an alternative perspective to the roots of radical beliefs.

Antoine’s politics however is only as pressing as the empathy he shares with the murderous protagonist he’s creating within the workshops. It’s something his mentor, Olivia, cannot comprehend. Unable to recreate the same authenticity in her own work, Olivia is gradually drawn to Antoine, and their dynamic is a tense address on a writer’s desire to achieve authenticity.

Antoine develops with his own written narrative, broadcasting his hate to the group, which is gradually replaced by boredom and his final address. While Antoine writes a character that is mostly a reflection of himself, Cantet communicates through Olivia his own process of writing the character of Antoine. Olivia explains that you don’t have to be a racist to write a racist character, and too that you can write something not to endorse it, but rather to learn about it and to denounce it.

The Workshop is a platform for Cantet to experiment and create a character he does not yet understand, but a character he wishes to learn more about. It’s an elaborate way of looking into radical politics and the sociopathic identity, but the tension Cantet builds through Antoine’s journey to the fringes and his burgeoning relationship with Olivia are testament to the craft of one of French cinema’s best contemporaries.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Workshop screens nationally as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival, which kicked off on February 27th. For more information and tickets please visit: https://www.affrenchfilmfestival.org/