The Workshop is a captivating film that makes you think. It is based around a small writing
workshop in La Ciotat, southern France, mainly made up of young people.
The diverse backgrounds and the different political ideas in the group make for some tense and angry discussions.
The aim is for the workshop to write a thriller together. Their discussions about the plot, the setting and motives end up bringing the history of their town to life.
There’s a suggestion that the novel could be set outside of France. As Antoine, the main character, says, “You write a novel to escape your shit life. Why set it here?”
The story is told in a laid back way and isn’t overly dramatic. This is a good thing.
It feels like we are just getting a snapshot into people’s everyday lives and the contradictory pressures they come under. It makes the story feel more real.
The film shows up how mundane and stultifying life can seem. Some parts are supposed to be scary and they are. But far more disturbing is the ease with which right wing ideas can take hold of people.
Antoine comes across as a lonely man who isn’t getting a lot from life and feels trapped in a small town he is utterly bored with.
He also comes across as a racist who loves to taunt Muslim and black members of the group.
Ideas about race, class and belonging flow through the film.
The group discusses setting the story in a shipyard, bringing up the town’s radical past. Old footage shows the country’s shipyards as vibrant places with workers streaming out. Then they are shown rusted and abandoned.
But for their research the students visit one yard that was saved after people fought back. “They tied a manager to a crane,” explains one.
The worker taking them around says, “We fought back and we won.” The shipyard stayed productive, and now makes fancy yachts.
The strength of the film is that it makes you unsure of how to judge Antoine. On one hand, his repeated racist goading of people is abhorrent. And at times he seems to lack all empathy.
But we also see him as vulnerable, under the mask he puts on in public.
There’s a sense that he could go either way—become a hardened far right thug, or find something worthwhile in life.
There is humour in the film—such as the bizarre competitions between the students over who is “more French”. It’s good to find out how the different characters and their talents develop.
Even when it’s slow paced, it still makes you want to keep watching. A lot of the scenery is beautiful.
And in the end, Antoine gets his freedom.
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