There is a throwaway moment in the middle of The Workshop, the latest film from Palme d’Or-winner Laurent Cantet, that nicely explains why the film doesn’t quite achieve its considerable ambitions. The film frequently punctuates its sequences with brief interstitial views into the myriad pursuits of the angsty teen serving as one of its two protagonists, Antoine (Matthieu Lucci). These pursuits are indeed myriad: beyond participating in the eponymous writing workshop, he surfs the hell out of YouTube’s fringes, dances alone with headphones in his room, swims in a cove on the outskirts of town, gets into shenanigans with his crew, and plays video games. In that moment, we see him playing a complex MMORPG, fighting some sort of boss, exhorting and scolding his raidmates on his headset as his avatar succumbs to the dragon’s attacks.
The thing about games like that is that they’re huge timesucks, especially if you’ve gotten to the point where your character is advanced and raiding dungeons with other advanced characters. There is just no way that an actual #teen could possibly do all the things Antoine does. That’s of course because Antoine isn’t an actual teen: he’s ultimately a stand-in, a cypher onto which both the ideas of other characters in the film, the filmmakers, and the audience are all projected. But in his desire to have it both ways – or really all three ways, because Cantet would like The Workshop to be a character-driven thriller, a sociopolitical allegory, and a philosophical fable all in one – Cantet often finds himself not uniting these disparate threads, but tangled in them.
That workshop is a summer course, one where a bunch of kids all living in post-industrial La Ciotet get together under the guidance of a Parisian literary novelist Olivia (Marina Foïs) to collectively produce a novel. That workshop includes Antoine, of course, as well as a collection of other kids that look like the cover of a college brochure whose naked desire to advertise the school’s diversity verges on the comical. Over its course, tensions will bubble, Antoine provoke his way into alienating his classmates. He and Olivia will develop an increasingly-intense mutual fixation, one destined to come to some kind of head.
Nobody can fault The Workshop for lack of cleverness, which may not sound like a sincere compliment but absolutely is. The film both is and is about thrillers, the creation of compelling characters, the degree to which art is political, the degree to which empathy and sympathy are necessary or separable in art. Nobody can fault The Workshop, mostly, for lack of craft – it is a well-performed, well-shot, well-edited film, completely compelling from beginning to end, despite how much of it is essentially a group conversation in a visually uncompelling space.
What you can fault The Workshop for are failures of character development, most obviously the rest of the teens in the workshop, who never go beyond a handful of notes or responses increasingly clearly designed to drive certain plot and idea elements forward. You can also fault The Workshop for lack of focus: rather than weave its elements together, it seems instead to push harder at some at some points and then drop them at others, leaving us wondering whether we’re watching Do The Right Thing, Body Heat, or Elephant. The answer, of course, is none-of-the-above, in a way that is both flattering to The Workshop as a conscious effort towards fusing different narrative/stylistic approaches in support of different ideological approaches, but unflattering since it never quite coheres.
The Workshop would like us to feel like we watched something meaningful about a lot of different things, when in fact it tabled all the elements of meaning, set some of them rolling, but didn’t follow through. The film does itself a disservice with a climactic scene that highlights its weaknesses, topped by the tactical misstep of filming almost the entire thing in such pitch darkness that almost nothing can be seen at all. But it’s the film’s denouement that is the best synecdoche for the film as a whole – pregnant with possibility, loaded imagery, yet sputtering out short of a true conclusion. In the end, we never get to really sink our teeth into the thing the workshop itself produces, a feeling that The Workshop itself mirrors.