L’atelier (The Workshop, France 2017)

Working al fresco . . .

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.

The group visits the old shipyard as part of their research

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?

Antoine, second left, is separated by from the rest of the group in this composition

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.

Antoine and Olivia meet – by chance or design?

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.

6 comments

  1. christinegeraghty

    Thanks for this I found the film very disturbing particularly in relation to the tutor’s response to her wayward student. Brilliant performance by Lucci though I was a bit sorry the film moved away from the very interesting groups interactions. Well worth watching

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    • Roy Stafford

      I’ve been working on the film for an event and I realise now that the narrative is all about Antoine from the outset. It’s odd that I forgot all about the opening videogame excerpt as the film progressed. Perhaps by giving the film the title of ‘The Workshop’, Cantet persuaded us all to expect that the outcome of the narrative would be something produced by the collective work of the group? In a statement introducing the film Cantet argues that it is the ‘energy of the group’ that enables the central character to sort himself out and decide what he wants to do. I agree that Antoine’s behaviour is disturbing. But how do you deal with the film’s coda? Cantet’s aim was to present a character who articulates some of the hopes and fears of young people, because ‘we’ need to listen to young people more. In that sense Olivia represents an older Parisian ‘élite’. Perhaps what disturbs us are the types of action and ideas that Antoine feels the need to explore rather than what he actually ends up doing? I think the film is rich in layers of meaning.

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  2. keith1942

    I wonder about giving Cantet ‘an auteur’ title? I have only seen one other title by him, ‘The Class’. I can definitely see cross-overs between that and ‘The Workshop’. But Roy does not discuss any of the traditional aspect of the auteur; style and themes. The term is frequently used nowadays as a term of valorisation; far removed from its original usage. I think that rather limits discussion as terms become increasingly vague.
    Perhaps Roy plans more on this.
    I do agree with the previous comment; the narrative is disturbing. Cantet seems to favour a key character who is or falls outside the group. But he leaves judgement out of this and it can seem problematic.

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    • Roy Stafford

      I am using ‘auteur’ in the contemporary meaning of a filmmaker recognised as someone making films that are likely to to be destined for arthouse distribution and to be supported by public funding as part of cultural policy. This is most evident in France, but other national film cultures feature similar policies. The ‘auteur’ label is only likely to be used for a filmmaker who has produced several films each of which have attracted critical attention and a profile gained through screenings at major film festivals. Cantet has so far made seven features plus a contribution to a portmanteau film. His films have been screened in competition at Cannes, Venice and many other festivals. He has an eighth feature Arthur Rambo which was in production in 2019 (though it may have been completed and not released because of COVID?). All the previous seven have had some form of UK release. The 1950s/60s concept of the auteur would also fit Cantet in the sense that he has a consistent aesthetic and similar thematic concerns across all the films he has made with his close collaborators. I hope to post on a couple more of his films soon.

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  3. keith1942

    I was unaware that some people are using auteur in the sense of ‘someone making films that are likely to be destined for arthouse distribution and to be supported by public funding as part of cultural policy’. I do find the modern tendency to extend meanings of terms problematic. I find that I constantly have to stop and consider what a writer means by a particular term. I do try and remember to ensure that my usage is clear in posts and articles.
    As for Antoine; it is clear that he is the central character in the title. However, as Roy concedes, for much of the narrative there does appear to be a equivalent focus on the study group. I do have a problem with how the film leaves the resolution for other characters unresolved.
    And Antoine’s final statement and the coda suggest that ‘boredom’, [does this mean alienation?] is his motivation. I think this needs a more complex treatment. And I did think with the earlier ‘The Class’ that the black student who suffered from the school’s disciplining needed a more complex treatment.

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    • Roy Stafford

      I don’t think Antoine is ‘bored’. I think playing the videogame and watching the political propaganda, as well as the swimming and fitness regime are all part of a kind of training programme or ‘testing of oneself’. As for the meaning of ‘auteur’, this seems to me now an institutional term relating to a form of practice defined by a more artisanal, funded as distinct from commercial, approach to filmmaking.

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