Each genre of film requires a different approach to be visually arresting. A comedy can be brightly colored and use its camera angles to foreground slapstick or comedic physical routines. If a thriller were to look the same way, it would lose all sense of atmosphere and be very unaffecting. A sci-fi movie about aliens requires a substantial special effects budget be they CGI, puppets/ animatronics, or special make-up on an actor. A drama doesn’t need that kind of a budget because it should focus on the environment and the lighting to showcase the characters’ inner turmoil with heavy use of shadow or a sense of isolation. The French-language film The Workshop does this beautifully.
La Ciotat, a French town nestled by the ocean, was home to a bustling dock and shipyard, which kept the town and its inhabitants in the good life. 25 years after the industry dried up, the residents have since struggled to reclaim that mighty status, with the younger generation feeling especially wayward. To help seven bright but directionless students, a writing workshop is set up, mentored by acclaimed author Olivia Dejazet (Marina Foïs). She tasks the students with collaborating on a noir story, coming up with the story, and using their hometown as the setting. Throughout the sessions, the belligerent, aggressive Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) stands out, in part due to his resistance to the others’ ideas. When his story of a murderer proves divisive, Olivia digs deep to find the real person beneath the anger.
“…to help seven bright but directionless students, a writing workshop is set up, mentored by acclaimed author Olivia Dejazet…”
Laurent Cantet, the director of the award-winning The Class, returns with another look at the struggling youth of France who receives guidance from a teacher figure. Things are not quite as smooth in The Workshop, as with his Oscar-nominated 2008 film though. The titular group of students is eight people strong, including the mentor, which is too large. Excluding Antoine, Olivia and Bouba (Mamadou Doumbia), whom Antoine gets into a very heated exchange with during one of the workshops, the audience learns little of the others aside from their names and appearance. Paring down the group to four people, including the teacher, would have allowed for their stories to come to the forefront a bit more, so they don’t just come across as scenery. As it is, though, most of these students barely get enough dialogue to be their own person, let alone memorable.
Also on the negative side is that the ending drags a bit. The final ten minutes are great, but the twenty before those last few scenes feel like padding. Antoine, in the dead of night, takes Olivia to his favorite spot near town, high on a cliff by the sea. They have a discussion about his future and what he truly wants, in his frustration he lets her go and shoots a gun aimed at the moon. Since Antoine’s misplaced anger and his self-ostracization from the workshop is handled amongst the entire group in the following scenes in a more heartfelt manner, this section could be cut, making the near 2-hour runtime more manageable.
“…uses cinematography and lighting to further the drama and examine the characters without spelling everything out for the audience…”
The good qualities outweigh the bad, though. Lucci navigates the volatile emotional state of Antoine with dignity, finding an eloquence in the quiet moments that captures the character’s inner strife believably. Marina Foïs is magnetic as the quiet novelist, trying her damnedest to help her charges find their voice. Warda Rammach as Malika only has one scene to make her character her own, but she does so quite well. The best performance comes from Mamadou Doumbia as Bouba. When he calls out Antoine for the racist subtexts in one of his stories, he is not angry, so much as hurt that anyone this day and age can still think such a thing. A bit heavy-handed from a writing standpoint, to be certain, but the acting rises above that to create a resonant and heartfelt sequence.
The Workshop consistently uses cinematography and lighting to further the drama and examine the characters without spelling everything out for the audience. It is a vivid looking movie, and the emotions ring true. Cantet’s direction is intimate and personal, allowing the emotions of the characters to unfold naturally. Guiding the penetrating stare of the camera is Pierre Milon’s luminous cinematography. As Antoine walks through the woods, the tree branches are always covering a part of his face. This highlights the fractured, antagonist qualities of the character, while still showing his intelligence. The students’ tour of the modern docks, now mostly housing yachts, has the boats towering over them, visualizing the economic disparity at the center of their lives.
The Workshop has a few too many characters and doesn’t sustain its momentum until the end. But, it is resplendent to look at, with the directing and acting being top notch.
The Workshop (2018) Directed by Laurent Cantet. Written by Laurent Cantet, Robin Campillo. Starring Marina Foïs, Matthieu Lucci, Warda Rammach, Mamadou Doumbia, and Issam Talbi.