In Laurent Cantet’s The Workshop, a headstrong, brilliant writing student in a former shipbuilding town takes a summer class taught by a novelist from Paris. Cantet’s film combines the slow-burn suspense of his Time Out (2000) with the boisterous class dynamics of its most obvious predecessor, his 2008 Cannes top-prizewinner The Class. Ornery right-winger Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) fascinates his teacher, Olivia (Marina Fois), and bugs his classmates, but rather than devolving into a drama about a troubled soul, the story only deepens with the mystery of talent, intentionality, and political fault lines (somewhat reminiscent of Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher). Film Comment spoke with Cantet at Cannes, where the film had its world premiere a couple of hours up the coast from its seaside setting, La Ciotat.

The Workshop Laurent Cantet

In picking this subject were you concerned about repeating The Class in any way? This film really finds its own direction and energy.

From the start it was really important to me that the film couldn’t just stay in the workshop. It had to go out, because everything that is said or takes place in the workshop is going to have a mirror in the uncomfortable relationship formed by Olivia and Antoine and in the violence running throughout, which is acceptable in novels but not acceptable in real life. In fact, that’s why I originally abandoned the project 15 years ago, because I hadn’t yet found the mechanism for taking it out of the workshop and making the fiction and thriller aspects exist together.

Fifteen years ago, obviously thats close to 9/11. Was that another factor in not doing it? At that time it struck me how people lacked patience with certain kinds of stories.

I actually started the project before 9/11, so that hadn’t entered our psyches yet. So if I had made the film at that time, it would’ve been much more centered on this link that the younger people might have to the shipyard, which is closed down, and the link to this past. When I came to the subject again later, I really needed to re-actualize it, update it, so that it would reflect everything that has happened since 9/11, and the new way of seeing the world as well—the new violence that’s in the world, Internet technologies, and all that stuff that’s come into the way the young people see the world.

Did you visit classes or observe teachers at work for this? 

No, I didn’t actually do any research into writing workshops or anything like that. I had some intuitions about how they might take place and then through talking to the kids and improvising and working through the scenes I was able to sort of confirm my intuitions or adjust them accordingly. We talked about their preoccupations and lives, and I brought those elements in. Maybe the way the workshop appears on screen is completely different than how a writing workshop actually takes place, but I have to admit that it’s something I was only partly interested in.

The students in the class are played by nonprofessionals—what do you think of that term, by the way? 

I guess the term “nonprofessional” works because they are actors, and when I’m looking to cast, I have certain criteria that I’m looking for, but I’m always ready to modify that based on if I’ve met somebody who brings something and seduces me in a way by showing me their intelligence or spark. Or maybe there’s something about them that makes me believe they can embody this role, and that they have the acting chops. I’m just as demanding with nonprofessional actors as I would be with professional actors. I’m not just trying to capture some essence of who this person is on camera—I’m trying to get them into the character. But I’m maybe pushing more of a way of being more than focusing on the technical aspects.

The Workshop Laurent Cantet

How did you cast the actor Matthieu Lucci, who plays Antoine? He brings a very credible raw energy to the character—he’s partly scary to the others because hes so independent. 

He has these things you’re talking about—there’s a contained violence in Matthieu, which comes across physically, even in the particular way he sets his jaw. And also there’s this obvious and clear intelligence in him that you can see behind the eyes. Also what I really like is the way he still is quite a teenager, but also on the cusp of becoming a man, and I needed someone to embody that. And then because I wanted to be on the side of the “bad guy,” I needed somebody who could embody that bad guy but also have the necessary sympathetic qualities and identification factors that would mean that we would also be with him. It was a tricky, risky thing to take on but I think that he made that possible.

I also wanted to avoid falling into the cliché of the standard skinhead type of guy. In a way, what’s even scarier about Antoine to me is that he has this violence, but he’s also a good boy, a nice boy, and you don’t necessarily see it coming.

Hes also funny, and a romantic in a literary sense.

[Nodding.]

Theres that beautiful image of him firing a gun at night—literally shooting the moon. How did you envision the look, the cinematography, of the film?

There are two main approaches to the film’s look. For the workshop, the priority was to create an open space of freedom for the actors to move within. And then going outside, in exterior shots, I had a desire to emphasize the region’s sensuality, to show the pleasure of going into the rocky inlets, the Calon, the hot sun on your body, and how that’s important for Antoine. That was also a way for me to highlight his self-centered, solitary personality. Also I lived there when I was young and these were sensations I wanted to recapture. The full moon nights when I used to live in Marseilles, when I was young and there was a full moon, we used to go and walk around in the Calon region, which was like a lunar landscape. With today’s film technology we’re able to recreate that.

You know the place where we shot the house where they work together? It’s Michel Simon’s house. He used to come here for vacations.

The natural beauty of the setting fits in with the class aspect as well: its a place that Olivia is visiting as if on a vacation, but for them, its where they live.

I like that one scene where she says, “Don’t you think this crane is great?” and the guys are like, “No, it’s nothing, it’s just a crane. Just like you, when you go in front of the Eiffel Tower and you don’t look at it.” And she says, “Yes, I do, it still impresses me,” and they can’t understand it.

The Workshop Laurent Cantet

Marina Foïs is also terrific in this. How did you select her—did you always have her in mind for that character? 

My original idea was to bring an English writer over. So I tried a few English actresses, but I quickly saw that it was not going to work. I would need someone who had a full and complete mastery of the French language so that she could be up to the level of these kids’ vitality and belligerence, who had the language to stand up to that. I knew Marina could do that and also that she would be interested and excited about the idea of taking on this project that’s a different way of filmmaking than she’s done before, with the group of nonprofessionals. One thing that I found that was very compelling about her was her capacity to listen. That continued off camera because she was very interested in these young people and what they had to say.

This seems like a boilerplate question, but I’m genuinely curious: what more have you learned about todays youth in France in making the film? 

I think that the film actually represents today’s youth in a fairly accurate way. Many of them are feeling abandoned, left to their own devices, isolated within their own communities, and I wanted to listen to them and give them a space where they can express themselves. I think that we’re very responsible for the big generational rift that we have, and it’s urgent for us to get in there and give them a chance to show us who they are. I find that some of this disaffectedness is sometimes just posturing—maybe them wanting to give off some image of themselves. Because once you do get on an equal footing and start communicating, you can be very struck by the level of community and strength they have. They’re a force to be reckoned with.

Even on the level of language, they all speak to each other with all their slang, but as soon as we come in, they bring it up to the same register that we’re talking in now. That’s why I really like the scene in the film where Olivia, comes to their level and says “Does it give you a hard-on?” and they’re all really offended—how dare you come down and talk in our register?

That makes me think a bit about the texts that Antoine writes. Were you imitating anyone in particular? 

I actually didn’t model that text on anything in particular. I wrote it myself, so I tried to make it sound like something he could write, and also I wanted to push it to the limits of this violence that he wants to express but which is unacceptable.

What’s your next project? Im curious to hear where you go from here.

I’m curious, too.