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‘The Workshop’ Cannes Review: Art and Politics Collide in Timely Drama

Film explores the impact of far right politics on a group of students

Playing in Un Certain Regard at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, “The Workshop” reteams Laurent Cantet and his co-screenwriter Robin Campillo (also the writer/director of this year’s awards frontrunner “120 Beats Per Minute”) in what initially seems like an attempt to make lightning strike twice.

Cantet’s “The Class” scored a stunning Palme d’Or upset at Cannes in 2008 Cannes. His was the last film screened, and few had particularly high hopes for it in a competition that also included Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo” and Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir.” But Cantet’s film about a multi-ethnic Paris high school turned out to be the right film for the right moment, presaging questions race and class that have grown all the more relevant in the ensuing years.

Whereas “The Class” had a bunch of troubled students debating the issues of the day from their high-school homeroom, “The Workshop” has a bunch of troubled students debating the issues of the day from a writing workshop in the South of France.

With a languid pace befitting the hot Provençale sun, “The Workshop” eventually shifts its focus from the motley group of non-professional actors to isolate one student in particular. That would be Antoine (Mathieu Lucci), a brooding loner who espouses incendiary polemics and writes troubling texts that revel in violence and murder. Program director Olivia (Marina Foïs) soon finds herself fascinated by the angry-eyed Antoine, because for all of his troubling views he happens to be an astute literary critic.

Though the film occasionally assumes the airs of a slow-burning thriller, the overall product remains a firmly intellectual exercise. Respected novelist Olivia tries to veer her students away from what she views as the easy appeal of cheap genre writing, and the film’s structure mirrors that push and pull between her and the students, taking on the occasional tawdry element before pulling back into a talkier, idea-oriented register.

Similarly, as Olivia tries to get to the bottom of Antoine’s disgruntled nature, she finds links to a populist far-right politician. But the film makes clear that there are no easy answers, no simple Rosebud that can succinctly explain any one person’s character. Tempting as it is to ascribe direct correlations, “The Workshop” argues that such reassurances only exist in fiction.