The Workshop + The Guardians: The Perils of Intellectualism

Image courtesy of Strand Releasing.

The Workshop: *
The Guardians: *** ½

Whether you’re looking at their intentions or the ways they go about realizing said intentions, two recent French films offer a marked study in contrasts. On the one hand, Laurent Cantet’s The Workshop wants to pass itself off as intellectually “important” – and in practice, it tries to achieve this objective by telling the story of Olivia (Marina Foïs), a writing teacher who befriends an alt-right teenager named Antoine (Matthieu Lucci). Meanwhile, Xavier Beauvois’ The Guardians provides an understated, narratively sparse character study of Hortense (Nathalie Baye), Solange (Laura Smet), and Francine (Iris Bry), three farmwomen who have to make do while the men in their lives are off fighting in World War I.

Image courtesy of Strand Releasing.

To start, The Workshop is a film that constantly flaunts its intellectual relevance to current events, particularly those related to the rise of France’s National Front. The overall story centers around a writing class that Olivia teaches one summer in La Ciotat, a small French town on the Mediterranean coast. But while many directors would play up the scenic aspects of this setting, Cantet instead fills The Workshop with long takes of the town’s abandoned shipyards – an emphasis that serves as a reference to ongoing discussions about the negative effects of globalization. Structurally speaking, moreover, much of The Workshop simply consists of a fly-on-the-wall depiction of arguments that Olivia’s students have in class, and these discussions invariably broach hot-button issues like terrorism, unemployment, multiculturalism, and the nature of Islam.

The problem with The Workshop, however, is that it’s so obsessed with appearing intellectually topical that it’s left rather empty on an emotional level. Just look at its character development. Throughout the film, you never get the sense that Cantet sees his characters as people; rather, he always regards them as mere vehicles for his attempt to create a greater political allegory. The main things we learn about Olivia, for example, are that she’s Parisian and liberal – just enough details, in other words, to turn her into a personification of globalist elitism. Similarly, Antoine is only developed to the extent that such development makes him a better emblem of the excesses of Le Penism. And Olivia’s other students receive equally caricatural treatment; we learn that they’re Muslims, or that they’re immigrants, or that they’re unemployed, but not much else.

Even if you can overlook this emotional hollowness, moreover, The Workshop’s self-proclaimed intellectual merits eventually prove to be little more than hot air. As mentioned, Cantet undeniably does a good job referencing current events. But thanks in part to his inability to see his characters as anything but symbols, referencing is all he’s capable of doing. As the movie moves forward, you gradually realize that he doesn’t have any meaningful, original commentary to provide on the sociopolitical trends he cites; it’s as though he thought that the mere mention of recent news stories would somehow render the film more profound. Because of this, unfortunately, The Workshop generally just plays like a cinematic version of a news digest – a far cry from the kind of analytically perceptive work that Cantet wants the film to be.

Image courtesy of Music Box Films.

Like The Workshop, meanwhile, The Guardians certainly does touch on themes and ideas that you could call intellectually “important” or “relevant.” Solange and Francine’s storylines, for instance, both speak to the enduring difficulties women face when trying to break free of traditional gender norms. The conflicts that arise when a group of American troops visits the protagonists’ farm, moreover, testify to the mixture of grudging respect and simmering resentment that’s often characterized transatlantic relations. (Especially now.) And the sullen behavior that the protagonists’ loved ones exhibit while on leave illustrates just how traumatic direct combat can be – a reality, needless to say, whose implications unfortunately continue to matter.

Unlike what Cantet does in The Workshop, however, Beauvois never lets his interest in such ideas obstruct The Guardians’ emotional dimension. In fact, throughout The Guardians, Beauvois is always most concerned with the depiction of his characters’ inner psychology – even if that means forsaking narrative clarity and the conceptual, thematic development that such clarity entails. To take an example of how all this plays out in practice, Beauvois regularly uses hard cuts to make large chronological leaps and abrupt changes in setting: even though this approach leaves many of the film’s plot threads “hanging,” it aptly captures the protagonists’ creeping sense of directionlessness. Similarly, the film’s long takes, lengthy tracking shots, and penchant for prolonged silences all “dilute” the continuity of the narrative. But by doing so, these various techniques nevertheless offer a vivid representation of the monotony and hidden agony that underlie the characters’ daily existence.

Image courtesy of Music Box Films.

Beauvois’ psychology-centered approach doesn’t come without some tradeoffs. As many have pointed out, The Guardians is generally quite slow, and it lacks the liveliness of The Workshop’s most intense exchanges. Yet as annoying as it might be, such unhurried, decidedly anti-dramatic pacing gives Beauvois leeway to dig into his characters’ minds and more fully illustrate how said characters personally experience the war. The resulting film not only repudiates Cantet’s empty brand of intellectual bravado, but it also does an effective job making us understand – and connect with – a group of people that we otherwise wouldn’t bother getting to know. As Roger Ebert famously put it, movies “are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts,” and in the end, The Guardians’ ability to live up to that statement makes it a far more affecting and thoughtful experience than The Workshop.

(Postscript: aside from the slow pacing, there’s one other thing about The Guardians that you might find problematic. Midway through the movie, a dream sequence depicts the nightmares that Solange’s brother has one night while on furlough. The sequence’s direct portrayal of trauma sharply breaks with the comparatively allusive approach that the rest of the film adopts. Worse, the sequence also undermines the overall story’s purportedly female-centric worldview – because even as the movie directly takes us into the mind of Solange’s brother, it never does anything similar with respect to its female characters. Fortunately, however, this sequence ultimately turns out to be a stylistic and thematic anomaly.)

Image courtesy of Music Box Films.

***

The Workshop (2017) The Guardians (2017)
Country: France.
Dialogue in French.
France.
Dialogue in French/English.
Starring: Marina Foïs
Matthieu Lucci
Nathalie Baye
Laura Smet
Iris Bry
Running Time: 113 minutes 138 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not rated R
Produced by: Denis Freyd Sylvie Pialat
Benoît Quainon
Written by: Laurent Cantet
Robin Campillo
Xavier Beauvois
Marie-Julie Maille
Frédérique Moreau
Based on: N/A Les Gardiennes by Ernest Pérochon.
Directed by: Laurent Cantet Xavier Beauvois