(director/writer: Laurent Cantet; screenwriter: Robin Campillo; cinematographer: Pierre Milon; editor: Mathilde Muyard; music: Bedis Tir, Edouard Pons; cast: Marina Foïs (Olivia Dejazet), Matthieu Lucci (Antoine), Warda Rammach (Malika), Issam Talbi (Fadi), Florian Beaujean (Etienne), Mamadou Doumbia (Bouba), Julien Souve (Benjamin), Melissa Guilbert (Lola), Olivier Thoret (Teddy Chauvin – le cousin), Leny Sellam (Boris, l’éditeur); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Denis Freyd; Strand Releasing; 2017-France-in French with English subtitles)

Finely tuned timely film on contemporary violence in France.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Laurent Cantet (“Human Resources”/”The Class”) is director and co-writer of this finely tuned timely film on contemporary violence in France. It’s a tense social drama revolving around a writing workshop run by a famous mystery author and a disparate group of aspiring teenager student writers. It’s co-written by Robin Campillo. The handheld camerawork by Pierre Milon is well-used in capturing the ongoing tension. The setting for the writing seminar is the once-thriving ship building port town of La Ciotat, near Marseille in the south of France, an area now in decline for economic reasons as it just services yachts. The celebrated liberal novelist, Olivia (Marina Foïs), selects a group of multi-ethnic teenagers for her seminar, with the goal that each student will contribute to writing a novel together that they will publish. The alienated, maladjusted loner, Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), is one of these teen writers, who has trouble relating to the other teens and to the well-intentioned but clueless teacher. The racist white kid takes far rightist positions and revels in violence. The teacher is uncomfortable with such a disagreeable personality and is afraid she can’t control him.

The story revels in the bitter clash of ideas between the teacher, challenged for not being forthright in her depiction of killers in her books, and the kid’s own darker assertions of what it takes to be a killer. After he reads to the class his first exercise piece, a violent bloodbath on a yacht, the class doesn’t know how to critically respond. The teacher tries to ease the tension by saying the things written about a sociopath don’t have to be written by one, but she shows by her gestures she might not totally believe that.

In the final act, the filmmaker drifts away from the claustrophobic debate setting and things get resolved in a not too thrilling conventional genre way, as the film loses some of its early punch by going too far off course of its earlier verbalizations.

But the film still works as a study on violent behavior because it’s energetic, probing and gripping. It leaves us with many troubling questions to respond to. The mostly non-professional actors are spontaneous and their improvising gives off a naturalness. The filmmaker has voiced his concerns over France’s recent terrorist attacks and the polarization of the country, in this thought-provoking and gut-wrenching film it bemoans how far apart the country has become culturally.

The Workshop Poster