This is the first film Laurent Cantet has made in France since his 2008 Cannes winner The Class, and a lot has changed since then. We’re post-Bataclan, post-Nice, and with support for Le Front National rising. Where his previous secondary school portrait took the country’s pulse in its day, to find him working again with the same French-Moroccan screenwriter Robin Campillo, and another bunch of teenage non-professionals in the cast, is certainly a promising prospect.
However, it should be said that this is definitely not The Class 2, but shaped around a somewhat looser dramatic construct as a way of addressing the hopes and fears of young folk in an evidently divided nation.
The set-up this time is a workshop where a bunch of kids are due to turn out a collaborative novel, supervised by Marina Fois’ mid-ranking contemporary writer. Not sure whether we or they ever really believe that’s going to happen, and since we’re in the social melting pot of La Ciotat on the south coast, it’s an excuse to bring together kids from various ethnicities, religions and social backgrounds. A decision to pen a whodunnit based in their hometown gets us rooting around in the place’s industrial decline and its impact on the mixed working-class populace.
Moderately interesting, then we’re examining how the teens’ notion of storytelling draws on video games, action movies and social media, rather than literary sources or classic cinema. Uh-huh, fair enough. And just when the whole thing’s starting to feel like some middle-class intellectual’s idea of what’s happening with today’s youth, the middle-class intellectual writer herself gets upbraided for her pretentious literary efforts and subsequently confesses to her editor that she’s having trouble with the adolescent protagonist of her new book.
Eventually, we get out of all this fog and a narrative thrust emerges, focusing on Matthieu Lucci’s disaffected white loner. He’s into body-building, and his contributions to the workshop lead him to constantly goad his Arab and black classmates, suggesting political views leaning severely to the right. His big idea for the book is a murderer who kills for the thrill of killing. Needless to say, teacher finds him fascinating, and Lucci’s clenched, flinty performance is eye-catching indeed. But weren’t they meant to be writing a book or something?
As the film wanders around in search of itself, it’s eminently possible commend Cantet for attempting a sort of unclassifiable essay-doc suspenser, but that would be to ignore the mounting exasperation prompted by its essentially hollow centre.
There are things to admire here, since it flags up enough hot-button issues to qualify as a credible state-of-the-nation snapshot. Fois does a commendably subtle job as the teaching trying not to show her frustration at the class going off-message, while Cantet’s multi-camera technique captures every nuance and gesture.
But as a whole it’s a bit like one of those dishes in a cheffy restaurant, where the description sounds enticing, it all looks great on the plate – and then turns out to not taste of much at all.