L’atelier [The Workshop] (2017)

Director: Laurent Cantet
Writer: Robin Campillo, Laurent Cantet
Cast: Marina Foïs, Matthieu Lucci, Florian Beaujean, Mamadou Doumbia, Mélissa Guilbert, Warda Rammach, Julien Souve, Issam Talbi
Part of: Viennale
Seen on: 27.10.2018

Olivia (Marina Foïs) is a respected novelist who is participating as a teacher in a summer class for underprivileged kids. The seven participants are supposed to write a story together but one of them, Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) won’t play along. His writing is filled with violence and empathy for the perpetrators of it. His behavior in class is antagonistic, racist and shows him sympathizing with neo-nazis and fascism. Olivia struggles with the situation in a class where most of her students aren’t white. But she’s also intrigued by Antoine’s obvious intelligence and tries to find out more about him.

L’atelier could have been interesting if it had been the film I was hoping to see and not yet another story that asks us to please empathize with the neonazi. Maybe if the film hadn’t been made by white people, it would have been good.

I was hoping that L’atelier would be a film about how a teacher can deal with a racist student, trying to balance protecting her students of color from them while not immediately giving up educating the racist. That’s a, I think, difficult and important question. Unfortunately, the film goes down another route instead: Sidelining the students of color (and their hurt at the continuous racist attacks from Antoine) completely it’s all about the fascinating (to Olivia) Antoine and what makes him tick and how to understand him etc etc etc. And of course, a smart young man like Antoine doesn’t become a nazi because of hate, no, it’s all because he’s lonely and sad and unhappy with his own situation.

And not only is that a tired and much too simplistic answer that leaves too much out, it’s an answer that wants the audience to empathize with Antoine, the neonazi, while (the feelings of) the hurt people from the marginalized groups are complete marginalized again.

And from an educator’s perspective, I hope that nobody ever takes Olivia’s behavior in the situation as any kind of inspiration because pretty much every decision she made was completely wrong. First of all, she ignores the group to focus on one student in particular – and it’s the same student all the time. Then she wants to use said student as research material for her own book and describes the book as being about a brutal, sexy teenager which, hello, creepy much? And finally, everytime the other student bring up Antoine’s racism, she completely betrays them and, meaning to be fair, always makes sure that Antoine gets to say his piece. But not all opinions are equally valid and not everything can be said. Racist, dehumanizing shit is not something that should just be expressed and then discussed calmly as if it wasn’t affecting anyone. This shit has to be shut down, quickly and mercilessly. There can be no discussion about somebody’s worth or right to live. Unfortunately, that’s not a memo that Olivia ever got.

Apart from the catastrophic, albeit well-meaning handling of the subject matter, the film has lengths. Although it is of course possible, that it only felt that long because I was so aggravated by it that I just wanted it to end. Either way, I was glad when the film was finally over.

Summarizing: Misguided. Very much so.

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