Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 22, 2018 12:42 pm 
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Mysterious youth

Laurent Cantet's new film is part improvisational schoolroom study (like his prize-winning 2008 The Class), part slow-boiling (and slow-diffusing) thriller. Its themes, various and shifting, go back to social conflict and work, like his 1999 Human Resources and 2001 Time Out. They've also been updated and are as contemporary as Isis and the Bataclan massacre. This is a return to form and to collaboration with editor-cowriter Robin Campillo after two less successful projects by Cantet abroad on his own. The Workshop is alive and spontaneous yet easy-paced and very much a think piece. It leaves you pondering.

The focus is a summer writing workshop. A successful crime novelist, Olivia Dejazet (Marina Foïs), has come from her Parisian home base to the southern town of La Ciotat. The young students (all played by non-actors), who meet with her outdoors are a lively mix including white, black, Arab. The project is to invent collectively a novel that will later be published, the only requirement to make use of local setting and history. La Ciotat is a formerly great marine construction zone. It employed many workers, but most of it was shut down several decades ago, reduced to work on luxury yachts. The group agrees on a story about a mysterious death, presumably a murder.

They differ on the details. Malika (Warda Rammach) is focused on the great past of ship construction because her grandfather, an Arab from North Africa, established her family's French citizenship through honorable work there. She reads a nice text she's composed about the glory days and the shutdown. Several others, including the white French Benjamin (Julien Souve), here only a few years, don't relate to La Ciotat's history, the former glory, subsequent divorces and suicides and sense of disenfranchisement.

Overheard after the first class, the student-collaborators also set themselves off from Olivia, who of course is older, successful, in their eyes well-paid and supplied with a very nice house for the summer, most of all of another, privileged class, Parisian. They find her a little snobbish. One girl even says she has trouble understanding Olivia's Parisian French.

But whatever others say, control falls into the hands of one student, Antoine (Matthieu Lucci, riveting), who becomes the film's focus and pivot point. He doesn't talk much, but when he speaks, the effect is sly, disruptive, dismissive. In particular he riles the classmates of Arab background, linking them with Isis and the recent terrorist attacks in France. Eventually Antoine emerges not only as Olivia's main fascination, maybe the smartest, most talented class member, who yet abandons the class after reading two stunning texts. The first of these is a description of a mass murder by a disgruntled worker on a luxury yacht, which causes outrage and disruption among the others. The second, read as a parting shot, is about murder as an "acte gratuite" and is a stunning passage worthy of Camus' The Stranger. Through Antoine, the film also shifts from being about composing a thriller into perhaps becoming one.

As the POV shifts to Antoine, we see him much by himself - on afternoon swims, diving off the dramatic cliffs. At home he speaks little to his parents, does body building, admires his muscles, watches a right wing idealogue, plays video war games. It appears the video game that opened the film, its source unidentified, was his. He hangs out with a married cousin and a group of relatives and pals, they play night games with camouflaged faces and loaded pistols. He has stalked Olivia when she was visited by her editor, possibly lover. Later she electronically stalks him, tracking him to these activities through social media. There is something very contemporary about the incriminating digital trail Antoine has left. At the same time he likes kids and has a sweet smile, though in the classroom or in combative dialogue with Olivia it may start to look more like a smirk.

This last shift has been questioned by some as manipulative or simply tonally shaky - the joyous, chaotic action of The Class was nothing like this, where the "classroom" is open-air and shifting, the class is multicultural and differently committed, the subject matter itself uncertain. But it is saved by the cast. The other students never seem anything but authentic and alive. That "workshopping" of the film itself was extensive is shown in how each one is clearly established as an identity with a few deft touches.

None of this would work without the main actors, Marina Foïs and, especially, Matthieu Lucci, who is clearly a remarkable find. Foïs creates just the right mix of confidence, good will and insecurity in the face of multicultural working class youth. Lucci is a natural. The camera loves him. He makes Antoine preternaturally poised and mysterious. Perhaps everything Antoine is doing is playacting. His denial of political thoughts and claim to being "con" (stupid) are obvious lies. But are his nativism and racism deep convictions, or masks he's trying on? All is hidden behind the deeper mask of youth. What's behind the new muscles and fresh skin? Boredom, despair? Maybe it's just a phase he's going through, and we may hope that is true for the whole country, and for him.

Not all of this quite works. It may seem too calculatedly improvisational, tipped in for effect. But there's also a freedom about it - the surprise final sequence adds to that - that promises Cantet and Campillo (himself covered with glory as a director after his 2013 Eastern Boys and his recent Cannes prizewinner BPM) - still have good things in store for us.

The Workshop/L'Atelier, 113 mins, debuted at Cannes in Un Certain Regard, showing or scheduled in 20 oher international festivals. It opened theatrically in France 11 Oct. 2017 (AlloCiné press rating a generally enthusiastic 3.9). US release by Strand Releasing begins 23 Mar. 2018 in NYC at IFC Center.

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