Monday, March 19, 2018

Cantet/Campillo's THE WORKSHOP is rich, encompassing cinema -- both broad and deep

TrustMovies often speaks of French cinema (and the French themselves) as perverse. I mean this as a kind of complement because they and their films so often go in a different direction than expected. Whether this is done for humorous, ironic or sometimes, yes, simply transgressive reasons, the result can be bracing, abrasive and thought-provoking. So it is with THE WORKSHOP, a new film directed by Laurent Cantet (Human Resources, Time Out, Heading South and The Class) and his co-writer Robin Campillo (Eastern Boys, They Came Back, and the recent BPM).

Messieurs Cantet (shown at left) and Campillo (below) have worked together often enough now that I suspect their wavelengths must be close enough to nearly run as one. Either that or their strengths and weaknesses so balance each other out that the result is, at this point, just about seamless. 

With The Workshop, the pair addresses a host of themes and ideas, both super-timely and, well, ageless. These would include everything from immigration and terrorism (the home-
grown variety) to the impact and importance of art on the general public. Oh, yes -- and, as my spouse pointed out after viewing the film, it is also, maybe most of all, an unusual coming-of-age tale.

In the film, a young man named Antoine (played by the excellent newcomer Matthieu Lucci, shown below, left) from a local port city in France joins a summer school workshop led by a smart and attractive teacher from the "big city" (the always interesting Marina Fois, below, center).

As the class progresses, it becomes clear that Antoine is both very talented and very problemed. How this is revealed to us demonstrates anew Cantet/Campillo's excellent grasp of storytelling techniques, dialog, and the mysteries of human character and motive.

The filmmakers excel at something I'd call not mis-direction (intentionally bringing you to think or expect the wrong thing) but rather a refusal to satisfy your expectations too easily or simple-mindedly. Cantet and Campillo actually demonstrate Chekov's famous "gun" concept and then stand it on its head by making that second-act usage less (and at the same time more) than a mainstream audience may want or care to wrestle with.

The entire class (above) is peopled by a fine assortment of young characters, each of whom is drawn and acted quite well, and who together represent a smart but not-too-tidy look at today's France. Their reactions to each other, and especially to Antoine, are spot-on and help push the plot, such as it is, onwards. I say "such as it is" because Cantet and Campillo have always been more interested in character and theme than in heavily dramatic plotting.

Things happen and build to a kind of crescendo of dramatic possibilities, and then they simply ebb as naturally as the tide that rises and falls around the port town. This may disappoint those who demand melodrama and major confrontation, but it will surely satisfy others who prefer a more realistic slice-of-life that refuses to solve all problems within the framework of a less-than-two-hour movie. Some change does occur here -- and to all the characters -- though we cannot be sure, I think, in which direction that change is headed or how it will turn out.

It has been enough to confront politics, economics, unemployment, immigration, the making of art and the confusion of youth so very well as do Cantet and Campillo. I can't wait to see what this duo comes up with next. From Strand Releasing, in French with English subtitles and running 108 minutes, The Workshop opens this Friday, March 23, in New York City at the IFC Center and then on April 6 in Los Angeles at Landmark's NuArt, and here in South Florida at the Tower Theater, in Miami, and the Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale, as well as elsewhere across the country. Click here (then scroll down to click on Screenings on the task bar) to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

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