The Workshop’s rich meta-fictional premise, in which a select group of multiethnic youngsters collaborate on a thriller in a writing seminar, allows for a thoughtful reflection on the sociopolitical narratives (and myths) of contemporary, crisis-ridden France. The group’s creative differences frequently explode into political arguments, in which the terrorist attacks in Bataclan and Nice are invoked with jarring directness. These scenes of debate (reminiscent of Cantet’s The Class from 2008) thrum with energy, thanks to the spontaneous and full-bodied performances of the nonprofessional cast, whose improvised dialogue feels casual yet cuttingly profound.
The workshop serves as scaffolding for the increasingly voyeuristic push and pull between Olivia and the racist, volatile (yet brilliant) Antoine. The former is a revelatory caricature of a clueless liberal intellectual, drawn to her student by the possibility of demystifying the inner lives of the troubled subjects she so glibly writes about. Antoine, however, is an amalgamation of clichés about disaffected youth. He’s obsessed with video games, bodybuilding, the military and guns — i.e., a watered-down Travis Bickle. When Antoine attributes his violent tendencies to “boredom” in the film’s coda, Cantet comes off as guilty of the same blithe characterizations for which The Workshop berates Olivia.