The Workshop directed and co-written by Laurent Cantet is currently screening on BBC iPlayer until early January. Cantet is a celebrated auteur who won the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2008 for Entre les murs (The Class). He has a distinctive approach to narratives that often create tensions inside groups of people in provocative ways.
The Workshop is inspired by a real event in 1999 when an English novelist was invited to run a writing workshop for young people in the small coastal town of La Ciotat on the French Mediterranean coast between Marseille and Toulon. The workshop featured in a French Cultural TV programme. Cantet thought about making a film at that time but switched to another project, only to return in 2016 and write a script with Robin Campillo, a long time collaborator who in 1999 had worked as an editor on the TV original programme. The new context, during the period when France suffered a series of high profile terror attacks, proved to be stimulating in various ways.
There are several important issues that feed into the social, cultural, economic and political context of the film. La Ciotat is a small town of only around 34,000. It has an important place in film history as the location of the summer residence of the Lumière Brothers. One of the earliest films by the Lumières, L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat was first shown in February 1896 in Paris. La Ciotat was also a major shipbuilding centre and the first French shipyard to produce steamships in the mid 19th Century using imported British technologies. In the 1970s it became known for the construction of oil tankers and bulk carriers, very large ships, eventually of up to 300,000 tons. In the late 1980s French shipbuilding was ‘rationalised’ and the yard was shut, although the workers campaigned to keep it open. Gradually the town began to focus on tourism and developed a yacht marina. The shipbuilding legacy saw yacht repairs and specialist boatbuilding return with far fewer jobs. Shipbuilding is the ‘heritage’ of the town, supported by local cultural projects, hence the writing workshop – a community-based event. But do the current generation of young people feel connected to the history of the town?
The coastline of the old province of Provence runs from Marseille to the Italian border and offers a mix of the industrial and the touristic with a focus on art and entertainment on the Cote d’Azur as well as the main naval port of Toulon. It figures prominently in French cinema, joyfully in a film like Jules et Jim (1962) and more intriguingly in Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965). What is important is that as the major French region with ports for direct contact with North Africa, this is also a region with Maghrebi families now into second and third generations as well as the returned settlers after the independence of the French colonies in the Maghreb. So the region has widespread support for Front Nationale/National Rally, whereas de-industrialisation has weakened support for the Socialists and Communists.
Cantet is careful not to provide too much background to the workshop and how the seven young people (four male, three female) were selected. Some have genuine ambitions to be writers, but others may just be bored or pressurised to come by the local job centre or by parents. It is important though that this group is representative of the town in terms of ethnicity, social class and religion. Although it is very much a group, the events push forward Antoine (an outstanding performance by Matthieu Lucci who has since gone on to appear in other film and TV productions). Ironically, Antoine claims that he doesn’t want to speak and feigns disinterest but when he does speak he is provocative and therefore potentially disruptive, but also intelligent and clearly engaged with a range of ideas. At one point he watches a French Armed Forces recruitment video and suggests that he might join the army. France has the largest armed forces in Europe and is active in many parts of the world. There is no conscription in France and instead promotional events and ‘taster’ drives prove effective in recruiting. The prospect of army life as an alternative to the lack of employment openings for young people links L’atelier to films like Les combattants (France 2014) with its central character of a highly educated young woman determined to join up.
Antoine proves to be someone who the novelist Olivia (Marina Foïs), the workshop leader, feels compelled to confront. She finds him mysterious and, perhaps unwisely, decides to engage with him outside the workshop. This gives Cantet the opportunity to develop a possible thriller. I don’t wish to spoil the narrative in any way so I’ll stop there. This is an intelligent film, but one that is complex in terms of what it is exploring – which isn’t the kind of action narrative that mainstream audiences expect. The ending of the film will not satisfy everyone but seemed to me to work very well. I think it’s time to go back and look at some of Laurent Cantet’s other films sitting in my DVD pile.