The Workshop (L’atelier)


Antoine gives his teacher a speculative look.

(2017) Drama (Strand) Marina Foïs, Matthieu Lucci, Florian Beaujean, Mamadou Doumbia, Mélissa Guilbert, Warda Rammach, Julien Souve, Issam Talbi, Olivier Thouret, Charlie Bardé, Marie Tarabella, Youcef Agal, Marianne Esposito, Thibaut Hernandez, Axel Caillet, Lény Sellam, Anne-Sophie Fayolle, Cédric Martinez, Chiara Fauvel, Jorys Leuthreau, Pierre Bouvier, Téva Agobian. Directed by Laurent Cantet

 

The act of writing is an act of revelation. No matter the format or genre, the writer never fails to reveal something about themselves. Sometimes that which is revealed is something dark and disturbing.

Celebrated novelist Olivia Dejazet (Foïs) is running a writer’s workshop for young people in the seaside town of Le Ciotat, near Marseilles. Once a prosperous shipyard, the mostly working class town has fallen on hard times. Unemployment is high and none of the teens who are attending the workshop have jobs. Apparently the purpose of the workshop is to give them something to do.

They are tasked with writing a thriller set in Le Ciotat. The youngsters debate whether to set it in present day or in the past, or in both utilizing flashbacks. The discussion is mostly friendly but there is one youth who is goading the others – Antoine (Lucci), a handsome and buff young man who insists that the novel be a murder mystery. That’s all well and good with the others but when it comes to motivation for the murder rather than something racially or financially motivated or a crime of passion, Antoine insists that it be more of a thrill crime – a sociopath who kills random people because he can. As he writes stories with this theme to read to the class, it is clear he is a very talented writer…and also that his imagination is disturbing to say the least.

Olivia begins to fixate on her young charge and does research, finding that he is watching right-wing nativist videos and shows an unhealthy obsession with guns and violence. Even as Olivia is drawn to him, she begins to fear him equally and what he might be capable of doing.

Cantet is the brilliant director of the brilliant The Class whose output since then hasn’t been released on American shores. The Workshop marks the first film in ten years by this director to get a U.S. release. Will this put him back on the art house radar the way The Class did in 2008? Probably not; the movie is more flawed than its predecessor.

Lucci, like all the other young people in the film, is an amateur actor local to Le Ciotat with no previous screen credit and he’s quite a find. Handsome and intimidating at times, he projects a sense of menace which is not so much overt but more venal than venomous. He seems hell-bent on pushing the buttons of everyone around him, sometime by saying things that are out-and-out racist or misogynist. Cantet hints that he truly believes some of those things but on the other hand there seems to be an ulterior motive that Antoine has in nearly every relationship he’s in with few exceptions. He despises his working class parents and everything they stand for but most of the right-wing commentaries he listens to disdain he unemployed, which he is.

The relationship between Antoine and Olivia is the central attraction here. The chemistry isn’t exactly sexual although there are hints that it might be. Olivia feels an odd compelling fascination that is mixed with outright and justifiable fear. As a writer, she’s curious about what Antoine is capable of. As a woman, she’s terrified over what Antoine is capable of. The resulting mix makes for a fascinating character study.

Unfortunately, none of the other kids in the class gets as much character development and the movie is long, drawn-out and slow paced which is an ingredient for American audiences switching to something less hard on their barely-there attention spans. That said, the film is still interesting – there are archival films of the shipyard’s heyday interspersed with the modern day action – and Cantet has a better handle on French social issues than almost any other director in France.

Readers in Miami can catch the film at the MDC Tower Theater this week. Tickets can be purchased here.

REASONS TO GO: The dynamic between Antoine and Olivia is intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is long and slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, teen drinking and disturbing dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted in the Un Certain Regarde category of the Cannes Film Festival in 2017.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Friend Dahmer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Where is Kyra?

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Beatriz at Dinner


Wine, women and song.

(2017) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Chloë Sevigny, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, John Early, Sean O’Bryan, David Warshofsky, Enrique Castillo, Natalia Abelleyra, Soledad St. Hilaire, Amelia Borella, Debbie Kindred, Pamela Drake Wilson. Directed by Miguel Arteta

 

In 2017 the distance between the haves and the have-nots has grown wider and the moral gulf between the two has widened similarly. In many ways, it’s hard to reconcile the two; they might as well be two completely different species.

Beatriz (Hayek) is definitely one of the have-nots. She lives in a ramshackle house in Altadena, a primarily Hispanic suburb in Los Angeles along with her menagerie of dogs, cats and goats. She’s a little troubled; her beloved goat was recently killed by an angry neighbor, a goat she’d brought up to America del Norte from her small village in Mexico.

She works at an alternative cancer treatment center, supplementing her income by doing massage therapy. One of her clients is Cathy (Britton), a wealthy housewife in Laguna. Beatriz was instrumental in her daughter surviving cancer and Cathy sings the immigrant’s praises to all and sundry. When Beatriz’ car won’t start and nobody can come get her until the next day, Cathy impulsively invites her to stay overnight and attend a small dinner party her husband Evan (Early) is throwing to celebrate the successful conclusion of a business deal.

Attending is Alex (Duplass), the lawyer who helped arrange it and his wife Shannon (Sevigny) and the guest of honor, billionaire investor Doug Strutt (Lithgow) and his wife Jenna (Landecker). Strutt is one of those one percenters who gives the upper crust a bad name. He’s boorish, arrogant and a bit of a blowhard and maybe a symbol for everything that’s wrong with Trump’s America.

Beatriz recognizes Strutt but is assured that it is because he is famous; she thinks he may have been responsible for a development that decimated her home village and destroyed the way of life there that she loved, forcing her family to separate and flee. She’s not sure so she holds her suspicions to herself.

Although she is constantly mistaken for a servant, Beatriz nevertheless acts with grace and courtesy even when Doug is saying spiteful snarky things to her. She holds her temper even though at times he seems to be goading her perhaps unwittingly, pissing on every precept close to her heart. The only time the two warm up to each other is when she gives him a neck rub and sings a song for the party. But the longer the dinner party goes on, the harder it is for Beatriz to hold her tongue; eventually it becomes obvious that when the confrontation comes it is going to be spectacular.

There are certain allegorical aspects to the movie, particularly with class warfare which seems to be a favored theme in 2017. Arteta and screenwriter Mike White are careful not to turn the characters into caricatures, with each of the party attendees given depth and much room to work with. The result is an array of impressive performances but none more so than Hayek.

She has always been an underrated actress, although those who saw her in Frida know what she’s capable of and she delivers a performance here that is at least on par with that one. Deliberately going unglamorous, wearing no make-up and putting her hair in a pony tail while dressed in the somewhat frumpy uniform she wears for the cancer center, Hayek looks mousy here although even this unflattering look fails to disguise the fact that she’s one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. She puts vanity aside in favor of creating a complete character and filling that empty shell with personality and life. Beatriz may be quiet and a bit on the new age-y side but she has a heart of gold.

The same can’t be said for anyone else at the party, even Cathy who proves herself to be just as material-oriented as the others there. All are busy licking Doug’s boots and heaping praise upon him as he jovially trots out potential titles for his autobiography, each one more pretentious and bombastic than the last. I’m not sure if Strutt is meant to be a stand-in for Trump but the similarities are there; the narcissism, the obsession with winning and of course the fact that he is, like Trump, a property developer. You can draw your own conclusions but the comparison isn’t a wrong one.

Lithgow who has been an amazing character actor for decades excels here. He’s made a career of playing some of the best and most despicable villains in movie history. He makes a perfect foil for Beatriz and Hayek and the two complement each other well as polar opposites. They are definitely the yin and yang of the movie and when you have two powerful performances in that position, you can’t help but have a terrific movie.

That is, until the final five minutes when an ending is delivered that stops the movie dead in its tracks. I won’t reveal specifics, only that Beatriz – a character who cherishes life – acts completely out of character not just once but twice. All the hard work that Hayek has given is sabotaged because her character is revealed to be either completely false to what we have seen, or the filmmakers decided to pull a fast one on their audience. Either way, it is disrespectful to the viewer and I sorely wish they had come up with a different way to end the film.

It’s a shame too, because this could have been one of the highlight films of the summer. As it is it’s a hidden gem that will likely pass unnoticed to the vast majority of the movie-going public who tend to get their prompts from heavy marketing campaigns and big summer blockbusters. If you’re looking for something that’s flying under the radar a bit, this is certainly one to consider. It’s just a shame that the ending makes me hesitate to recommend it wholeheartedly but I can at least count it worthy because of the performances and concepts up to that point.

REASONS TO GO: Hayek gives a remarkable performance and is supported superbly by Lithgow.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is horrible enough to nearly ruin a good movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some instances of profanity, a brief scene of drug use and a scene of unexpected and shocking violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third collaboration between Arteta and screenwriter Mike White.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dinner
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Good Fortune: The John Paul DeJoria Story