REVIEW | “The Workshop” at Cannes Film Festival

FILM/TV | An attempt to depict the dangers of politically correct culture in the world of creation thoroughly underwhelms

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Any person who has been in a writing workshop before can attest to the understanding that sometimes your ideas will not be well received by your peers.

But where does one draw the lines between where an opinion is simply distasteful and when it could possibly be dangerous or threatening? If it's the case of the former, how does the disagreement continue from there? If it's the latter, how do you handle explaining this inappropriate dialogue to someone? These are the two questions that seem to be at the heart of the French film.

Co-written by director Laurent Cantet (previously of "The Class" fame, which won the Palme d'Or in 2008) and Robin Campillo (who is also debuting "Battements Par Minute" at this year's Cannes festival), "The Workshop" works to tell the story of a group of racially diverse young adults who enter into a class to work on a crime thriller novel set in their town, the coastal La Ciatot, in the past and in the present. This group is led to renowned novelist Olivia (Marina Foïs), a bright and passionate woman albeit not very respected initially by her students.

COURTESY OF THE CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

Complicating this group dynamic throughout the film is Antoine (Mattieu Lucci in his screen debut), a French student who often brings in writing about controversial issues. Antonine writes of mass shootings and points out the opposite side of racism throughout the early moments of the film. He raises the question of why his fictional writing is worse simply because it handles a subject matter that others in the class do not agree with, a question that spirals out of control when Olivia develops an interest in further understanding Antoine, and he himself becomes more violently charged toward radical right-wing politics.

Nothing about this film feels radical or interesting, which to stay true to the definition of the Un Certain Regard category at the Cannes Film Festival, it must be in order to have a chance at winning the major monetary prize. While it makes some curious choices — such as having all of the students in the class not be professional actors — it works harder to open up interesting questions.

COURTESY OF THE CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

The discussion of "politically correct" language is throughout the film, specifically trying to question how the French handle the concept. When Antoine reads each of his writing samples to his groupmates, his work is beautifully constructed. However, the violence themes they surround (which is likely heavily influenced by the political environment Antoine's brother and friends take part in) could be taken seriously and therefore could become dangerous. This is exactly what Antoine himself falls victim to after spending two-thirds of the film watching and listening to the guidance of these messages online and on the television. He ultimately attempts to shoot and kill Olivia, though he lets her get away and calms down.

The influence of "politically correct" culture is certainly up for interpretation in the film, as is the idea that it might be dangerous to write off people who sound and look difference from us. This comes back around when Olivia first learns of Antoine's political interests after scouring his online profiles. Somewhat unprofessionally, Olivia requests an interview with Antoine for the purpose of her new book, which ends poorly when Antoine realizes how she obtained the information she then continues to question him on. This scene — arguably the most terrifying as it leads to the possibility of Olivia being hurt when Antoine takes off with her — allows us to see what can happen when we commodify those with differing opinions from ours, but it needs to take the next step.

How do we engage in productive conversations with those who don't agree with us?

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One major fault of the film is the way it neglects to answer this question or offer any solution. Instead, it ends with the students continuing to work on their writing, Antoine leaving, and Olivia seemingly to understand no more or less than when we first met her in the film. Because the characters throughout seem more like place holders in order to fully showcase a "diverse" group, the whole situation can feel a bit canned. But canned things tend to have a moral which this film never quite reaches.

There are other points that the film never attempts to pick up after sending Antoine off on an angered rampage. For one, the sexual tension that is frequently presented between he and Olivia. They watch each other swimming in scantily clad outfits and both spend time showing up at the other's home. But this is never addressed. It leads audiences to believe perhaps some sort of affair is where the plot is leading rather than a gun to someone's head in the woods.

COURTESY OF THE CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

Another dropped idea is that many of the students in the group are there because of past mistakes or because they come from underprivileged backgrounds. While it's nice in theory to give them the opportunity to create with a talented writer, they never seem to gain too much from the experience. The book is never published. Their home lives don't appear improved. It's hollow and undercooked, and could deserve the room to breathe instead of allowing Antoine the space to run around with a gun as he does for a hefty portion of the second half of the film.

This misleading narrative combined with nothing remarkable in shooting the film (it takes little effort to make a coastal French town more ideal) do not make this film a viable contender in a competition dedicated to successfully executed different ideas. While there is something to be said for each of the topics it attempts to tackle — race, social status, minority political beliefs — it never commits to one long enough to make the two hours worth sitting through.

A complete list of films in competition for the top prize in the Un Certain Regard category of the Cannes Film Festival is available on the festival's website, as is a photo call with the team behind "The Workshop."


Rachel A.G. Gilman is a writer, a radio producer, and probably the girl wearing the Kinks shirt. Follow her on Twitter.