In Laurent Cantet’s slow-burn social thriller The Workshop, angsty teenager Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) accuses the teacher of his summer writing class, a famous novelist named Olivia Dejazet (Marina Foïs), of not truly understanding the motivations of her many homicidal characters. “You write about sordid murders all day,” he says. “Haven’t you ever wanted to kill?” Olivia responds defensively to this provocation, but is intrigued by the subtext — it questions the ethical expediency with which bourgeois artists like her fetishize sociopathic violence while refusing to work to comprehend it.

The Workshop’s rich meta-fictional premise, in which a select group of multiethnic youngsters collaborates on a thriller in a writing seminar, allows for a thoughtful reflection on the sociopolitical narratives (and myths) of contemporary, crisis-ridden France. The group’s creative differences frequently explode into political arguments, in which the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice are invoked with jarring directness. These scenes of debate (reminiscent of Cantet’s The Class from 2008) thrum with energy, thanks to the spontaneous and full-bodied performances of the nonprofessional cast, whose improvised dialogue feels casual, yet cuttingly profound.

The workshop serves as scaffolding for the increasingly voyeuristic push and pull between Olivia and the racist, volatile (yet brilliant) Antoine. The former is a revelatory caricature of a clueless liberal intellectual, drawn to her student by the possibility of demystifying the inner lives of the troubled subjects she so glibly writes about. Antoine, however, is an amalgamation of clichés about disaffected youth. He’s obsessed with video games, bodybuilding, the military, and guns — i.e., a watered-down Travis Bickle. When Antoine attributes his violent tendencies to “boredom” in the film’s coda, Cantet comes off as guilty of the same blithe characterizations for which The Workshop berates Olivia.

First published in the Village Voice on March 22, 2018.