L’Atelier – Writing what’s wrong, together

During the summer in 2016, a well-known writer Olivia holds a writing workshop in Marseille area to promote writing among young people. With Olivia’s guidance, they need to write together a thriller. But in their group discussion, neither the history of the working class of the city nor the shut-down shipyards can interest Antoine, our protagonist. Bit by bit, Antoine shows signs of his attention towards the anxiety of the contemporary world, and a dubious attachment to the far-right politics. Soon enough, Antoine and his teammates grow apart because of their conflicts. Anger even makes him point a gun to Olivia...

Entre les murs has already brought Laurent CANTET a Palme d’Or in 2008. This year at Cannes, teaming up again with screen writher Robin CAMPILLO, CANTET made his way to Un Certain Regard with L’Atelier.

There are often some common figures reappearing in CANTET’s storytelling: students and workers on strike, middle-class on crisis or people of diverse races. L’Atelier follows right down this path and echoes the pulse of France, Europe or even the world.

This is the second time that Laurent CANTET and Robin CAMPILLO has collaborated, and the film inevitably shows a repetition of the same skill set of Entre les murs, just like the debate scenes in 120 BPM by CAMPILLO. L’Atelier once again takes advantage of the format of a teaching/debate session to approach the issues discussed in the film. The French, they never seem to hold back when it’s time to explain themselves. So among the group of the young, Caucasians, Black, Arabians, Muslims, they give tit-for-tat responses to one another. A big amount of lines shapes up the character of the teacher Olivia and students. With almost obvious purpose, these characters seem to be created for pointing out the issues: Arabians and Muslims leading to the subject of terrorism, Black people leading to the subject of racial discrimination, the writer signifying a conflict between French elites and commoners, Antoine and his far-right tendency. For instance, it’s interesting for me as a foreigner to see how a student makes fun of the teacher’s Parisian accent with her southern one, while in French language there is a word “province” referring to the whole country except Paris area – a constant conflict.

Of these big and small conflicts in the debate, a central topic appears: people not knowing what to do to face today’s mess. CANTET’s ambition is as huge as to teach a lesson to France, Europe and even the whole human society within two hours, to find a solution. By excellent control, the director manages to present the context of the 21st century in a writing class to avoid empty talk. It’s actually quite brilliant to set the film in a writing class, because it forces the students and us to analyze the reality with literature analyze process. As the classes move on, the line between literature and reality starts to blur, creating an intertextuality. The reality affects the content of the classes, and the classes reflect the reality. For example, when they need to decide a time background, a line goes like this (main idea): we need to write a crime story, in which the yesterday of the city leads to today’s murder. It’s like the director talking to the world: today’s misfortune is to pay yesterday’s debt. Besides, in the film there are tons of YouTube videos, Facebook pages and video games emphasizing that it’s our era, it’s our story, it’s today.   Another interesting thing of the introduction of literature is that, it talks about an important theory in writing: the point of view. In writing classes, they talk about how readers see the world through the protagonist’s eyes as well as the relation between writers and their characters: Is what you write what you think? Is what you think what you agree? CANTET’s camera follows Antoine for most of the time while Antoine is a young adult with a far-right tendency and ability to empathize with murderers, far-right supporters and terrorists. Being political is not rare in CANTET’s works, but unlike his attitude in his previous works, this time he uses intimate, indulgent and even romantic touches to describe this young man, making the position of the film unclear. The writer creates a delicate tension and tries to capture the uncertainty of his audience.  
The mental journey of Antoine reflects the subject of the film: the not knowing, about races, terrorism, globalization, and other issues happening today. A helpless feeling is growing. The anxiety of the century becomes the sorrow and hatred of Antoine. A Jihadist has a gun. Antoine has a gun. The former shoots to the crowd. The latter shoots to the moon on a night by the sea. The director seems to be trying to transform this anxiety into a lasting loneliness and meaninglessness of life and persuade us to make peace with them. It’s actually not a great answer to help our real world but it’s a great artistic representation of our time.

Zihao Deng

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