JASON SOLOMONS on a new film which explores the malaise of modern France, shorn of idealism and the certainties of the past.
Ten years ago, a French movie won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for the first time in more than 20 years. It was Laurent Cantet’s The Class (Entre les Murs), a fabulous slice-of-life drama set in a Paris inner-city school as a teacher exerted all his pedagogical skills to bring his class of disparate kids together.
It’s still one of the great films of this century and one of the great movies about school and education, and you can’t help but think of it when watching the director Cantet’s latest film, The Workshop (L’Atelier). Indeed, it could be viewed as a sort of class reunion, as a group of young adults/late teenagers come together, somewhat reluctantly, for a summer creative writing workshop in the once-industrial southern port town of La Ciotat, led by a successful Parisian author, Olivia (Marina Fois).
Cantet selects just as varied a group, comprised of French youths of mixed origins, including African, Arab, white and every place in between. ‘The two casts are, of course, microcosms of France itself,’ Cantet tells me, a large man with a soft voice and splash of silver hair, settling back into an armchair. ‘Both times, the casting took up months of my time and I saw maybe thousands of kids, so I got to know their thoughts and feelings because I was making them open up, do improvisations. So yes, you could say, I got to know two generations of French youth.’
The group – with names such as Boubacar, Matthieu, Malilka, Fadi and Lola – in The Workshop are guided to write a mystery story, starting with a murder in La Ciotat’s formerly thriving shipyard. As they discuss their ideas for various plots, dissonant chords are struck, with racial divisions bubbling quickly to the fore and mention of the ‘evenements’ of the Bataclan attacks and the Nice lorry massacre brought up provocatively when the subject of murder is discussed.
‘These events have marked modern life in France so deeply,’ says Cantet. ‘They are the standout debates of our times and of these young peoples’ times, like 9/11 in the US and like you have had, sadly, here in London, too. So they are, horrifically, universal elements and the job of the filmmaker is surely to reflect these.’
However, The Workshop has a deeper relationship with the past that provides a fascination glimpse of a disappeared life. La Ciotat was once a flourishing shipbuilding town, a centre of industry one perhaps doesn’t often associate with the Mediterranean coast. Huge supertankers were built and launched there, and thousands of workers poured out the yards every day, scenes captured in archive footage that intersperses the film as the group create a narrative that connects to their town’s past.
‘Yes, but for these young people, that world is pre-historic,’ reflects Cantet. ‘It’s their town’s heritage and it was the heartbeat of life there. When tankers were launched, all the schools closed so the children could come down to the port and cheer the ships their fathers had been building. Practically everyone was connected to the ships. But now these are just memories, stories that old people tell, and I found the youth are totally uninterested. They don’t want to hear about it or talk about it. That life, that society is eroded and the shipyards are just museums, the cranes still towering there like rusty monuments.’
The old clips are amazing, collected after an effort by La Ciotat’s current mairie, which asked for home movie footage to be sent in so they could preserve the town’s collective memory. Extraordinary shots of hulking ships splashing into a tiny port, creating giant waves like a tsunami, that would often break high up into the shores and promenades, sometimes sweeping people away. ‘It was a huge party every time, a public event, everyone cheering,’ says Cantet. ‘It was a culture, but like in the mining towns, that communal pride has now been erased. What struck me most about the young people I met during auditions, was how little pride they have in their locale, and how little prospects they feel they have.’
We often romanticise the past, particularly in film, going misty over the camaraderie of unions and close-knit communities. ‘I didn’t want to do that, even though I’m a leftist, obviously, because it’s not what these kids feel. They hate it. It’s not romantic for them at all. All that’s left for them is selling ice creams on the beach in summer, or a few days here and there on a building site – modern education has completely failed to equip them for the modern world that’s left to them.’
In the film, the process of writing and discussing does bring out some creativity, some hope and some increasing curiosity about their heritage. One girl, Malika feels rooted when she comes back with a story about her immigrant grandfather’s work in the yards. ‘Yes, it’s all about work,’ admits Cantet. ‘Work gives identity, belonging, self-worth and issues like race don’t come into it if everyone has the validation and dignity of work. But when work disappears, a whole ideology goes with it.
‘The solidarity of workers and unions, of social integration and leftist parties gets wiped away and leaves a space for new ideologies to take hold and that’s what’s happening in these areas now, with the extreme right and the internet. The young are easy prey, vulnerable to this propaganda which pretends to make sense of their lives, even if its false, fictive.’
One of the film’s main characters is Antoine, a loner who listens to rabble-rousing right-wing speakers online and feels utter alienation and contempt, for himself, for his future and for those around him. When he picks up a gun, he reminded me of Camus’ anti-hero Meursault in L’Étranger.
It’s somewhat shocking, or at least sobering, to think that these disillusioned young men and women are what those fresh faces in The Class grew into. Cantet sighs when I ask him how he feels about that? ‘To be honest, I sometimes despair that it was all a waste. You know, the kids in The Class, they really haven’t gone on to great things. They do little jobs, some joined the Army and all that energy and hope and intelligence I felt I captured on the shoot of that film, well what a pity they can’t harness it again and express themselves freely again. But look, I wasn’t their parents or their puppet master…’ He tails off. He does reveal that someone is trying to do a documentary about ‘what happened to the kids from The Class’, which I guess will have something about it of that wonderful Michael Apted series 7 Up.
It must be hard, I venture, for an idealist to witness such a hopeless scenario? ‘Well, yes, in my films, the characters are often idealists, I suppose. But they aren’t many left in life, I find. Actually, the face to face of those two worlds is where I find my drama – the ideal against the reality, that’s what produces tension and desire and, yes, action, even if its violent action.’
And, I ask, is that a reflection, a microcosm of where France is at right now? Cantet is, after all, the great chronicler of modern work in earlier films such as the factory-set Human Resources, or the wonderful Time Out (L’Emploi du Temps), in which a sacked man pretends to his family that he’s still in work, leaving the house every morning, sticking to the routine, the timetable of the original French title.
‘Yes, work is changing and has been for 20 years, but that’s not a French issue, more a global one, certainly a European one. Industry is disappearing and we forget the human cost of that. When the shipyards closed in La Ciotat, 50 people committed suicide, many turned to alcohol and thieving, and some occupied the yards for 10 years, refusing to leave, a violent stand-off that sewed a bitterness throughout the town and which still rankles and divides families today.’
I say Brexit has had that effect on Britain. ‘Ah yes, politics is doing the same thing now,’ he agrees. ‘I can’t remember the last time I voted for something. Seems I’m always voting against something, to block something – against Marine Le Pen, against Jean-Marie Le Pen, against Sarkozy – but never for something and it’s been like that for what seems 30 years. Nobody comes along to incarnate the France I want and of course I’m not alone in this, so we’ve all got fed up, disenchanted and got to a sort of pragmatic politics. The idealism has faded, or my generation’s has at least and that’s allowed a new extremism to flourish. It’s terrible, really.’
Not to get too down about it, I offer that at least The Workshop sounds some notes of hope. Even amid the racial slurs and accusations, the very act of discussion and debate brings about some realisations among the young characters in the film. ‘You know, at the end of the shoot, some of them said to me they’d never actually sat down and talked before and that being in the film has forced them to think about stuff, their lives, their friends, their family history.
‘So I believe, from example and experience, that yes, when you create spaces where young people can have communal reflection that they will take responsibility for their thoughts and actions, face to face. Not online in virtual communities, because these aren’t real, but the workshop situation, yes, I’m convinced it can bring about a deep transformation in a society.’
For now, The Workshop’s just a movie, a good one, too, and, ten years on, The Class remains a landmark and touchstone for idealism and hope.