The French filmmaker Laurent Cantet, who won the Cannes Palme d’Or for his 2008 film “The Class” about a high school teacher and a multicultural classroom, returns to the teacher/ student dynamic with his latest drama, “The Workshop.” This engrossing new film is set in La Ciotat, a coastal town in southern France where novelist Olivia Déjazet (Marina Foïs) is leading a summer workshop for teens struggling in school. She is helping them build their communication abilities and their confidence. The group of seven students of varying ethnicities are writing a novel, set in their hometown, about a murder. Olivia’s background in writing thrillers will help guide their narrative and develop their writing skills.
Cantet’s film is very talky as the characters discuss who should be murdered and how gory it should be, as well as the motive, the history behind the crime, and its discovery. When an Arab student, Malika (Warda Rammach), suggests the killing be a racist attack on a person of color, Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) suggests the reverse — that a white man should be slain by a black or Arab man. This is the first of his many provocations. Antoine is largely shunned by the other students for his attitudes, which suits him just fine.
Olivia becomes fascinated by Antoine, whose right-wing leanings become more apparent over the course of the heated summer sessions. Antoine swims to keep fit, but it’s also a metaphor for him cooling off. Handsome and very body-conscious, he is considering joining the French Army.
Olivia’s willingness to allow Antoine to speak his mind during the creative sessions leads to accusations she is defending him, but she does insist he leave the workshop after he goes too far at one point. When she visits Antoine at home that night to discuss his behavior, what is intended as a friendly exchange soon becomes much more intense. The push-pull between teacher and student becomes the focus of the second half of “The Workshop” and makes this slow-burn film crackle.
Antoine is clearly interested in his teacher, filming her surreptitiously with his phone and reading one of her novels and then critiquing it in a way that upsets her. He is the perfect foil for a woman who believes she has the upper hand but may not be as savvy as she thinks.
Olivia, in turn, looks Antoine up on social media, seeing videos of him with his friends involving a gun. She is intrigued by him and asks if she can interview him about his life for her work. Antoine reluctantly agrees.
Is Olivia mining her student for material for her next bestseller? Is there a romantic attraction between the teacher and her student? Does Antoine have some ulterior motive regarding Olivia? “The Workshop” teases out these questions in the conversations between the two, in the process hitting salient points about both identity and identity politics. Cantet communicates the nature of the relationship visually in shots such as one of Olivia writing in her home at night while Antoine, in her yard, is seen reflected in the window.
As the film builds its suspense ambiguously, viewers will be absorbed filling in the blanks as Olivia and Antoine slowly reveal more of themselves to each other. When Antoine tries to get Olivia’s goat by saying something incendiary, she responds coolly by just blinking and looking at him with incredulity. The teacher for the most part remains remarkably composed and unflappable in the face of provocation.
The performances by Foïs and Lucci are pitch-perfect. Olivia may be seen as haughty by her students, who mock her Parisian accent, but she has a genuine interest in helping them, including Antoine. Foïs’ achievement is subtle, as she projects intelligence and curiosity, but also a hint of fear and uncertainty as the game of one-upmanship with Antoine becomes more heightened.
Making his film debut, Lucci is magnetic portraying a teenager whose cockiness and confidence belie what is really going on inside his head. He creates an enigmatic character who continuously surprises viewers with his outbursts and actions. He is absolutely riveting to watch. So too is “The Workshop.”
THE WORKSHOP | Directed by Laurent Cantet | In French with English subtitles | Strand Releasing | Opening Mar. 23 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com