Skirt Day

Skirt Day

***1/2

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

It used to be that films set in the classroom divided themselves neatly along strict ideological lines. On the one hand there was the liberal approach, according to which inspirational teachers work miracles with their troubled young pupils, elevating them from underclass to top-of-the-class (Stand And Deliver, Lean On Me, Dangerous Minds). On the other, there were films of a decidedly more reactionary bent, in which teachers become enraged vigilantes, enforcing school discipline upon their delinquent wards with extreme prejudice (Class Of 1984, The Principal, One Eight Seven).

Recently, the classroom has become a more nuanced place. In Ryan Fleck's Half Nelson, liberalism has lost its way in the realities of post-9/11 neo-conservatism, and the protagonist, though adhering to the 'inspirational' model, is also a self-destructive crack addict. Similarly in Laurent Cantet's The Class, the teacher protagonist, though capable of the odd low-key miracle, is sinner as well as saint, shown failing his own lessons in the sensitive judgement of linguistic register, with tragic results for one of his students.

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And in Jean-Paul Lilienfield's Skirt Day, a put-upon teacher finds herself – accidentally, mind - taking her class hostage at gunpoint, and in her uncertainty as to whether or indeed how to defuse her impossible situation, she decides to take advantage of her students' full attention by teaching them a few lessons.

Sonia Bergerac (Isabelle Adjani) is a drama teacher in a beleaguered state school in the projects. Constantly treated with disrespect, abuse and worse by her multi-ethnic pupils, ignored when she complains to the headmaster (Jackie Berroyer), and deemed provocative by staff and students alike for the boots and skirt that she wears, Sonia is on the verge of a nervous breakdown – a situation not helped by the recent walkout of her husband.

Trying to teach Molière's The Bourgeois Gentleman in the school's sound-proofed theatre, she endures repeated delays, interruptions and obstructions from everyone, inappropriate sexual comments from the boys, and actual threats of gang-rape and murder from badboy Mouss (Yann Ebonge), who wants her to return the bag that she has just confiscated. When a gun falls out onto the floor, the terrified teacher grabs it, and in the confusion that follows, ends up locked in with nine of her equally terrified pupils.

The powderkeg scenarios staged within the school theatre are mirrored without, as hostage negotiator Labouret (Denis Podalydès) – whose mariage is also falling apart because of his work – must contend not just with a most unusual siege situation, but also with a trigger happy SWAT team leader (Yann Collette), with a scandal-hungry press, with teachers who have starkly different attitudes towards both Sonia and the student body, with the pupils' bickering parents, and with an image-conscious minister (Nathalie Besançon) whose idea of feminism clashes with Sonia's, and who would like nothing more than for the media and public "not to politicise this event."

So, while Skirt Day may take on the generic form of a thriller, complete with criminal actions, escalating life-or-death dilemmas, and plenty of narrative twists and surprise revelations, it is nonetheless also a stark political satire, exposing all the divisions and frictions – social, sexual, racial, cultural and religious – of a modern multi-cultural France whose fragile sense of identity remains locked in a state of turbulent adolescence.

"I didn't join in, I just filmed it – is it a crime to film?" asks Mouss when a video file of group rape is discovered on his mobile phone. Shortly afterwards, when Sonia has compiled her own incriminating film on Mouss' phone and sent it to all his gang-banging friends (as well as to the TV networks), she will echo his question right back at him – and, as though to hammer the point home, Lilienfield's film will feature near its end a deadly camera that shoots in more ways than one.

It is as though this incendiary Franco-Belgian co-production, originally made for TV, is all too aware of its own power (as film) to fan the flames of many combustible tensions at the heart of French society, fearlessly confronting issues that cannot and should not be erased as easily as chalk from a blackboard. Sonia's skirt is described by the headmaster as "not neutral in this context", and by another teacher as "an invitation to rape" – but the skirt is also a token of principled resistance designed to challenge entrenched mindsets. Something similar might be said of this film itself, whose provocations will no doubt lead to many divergent viewer responses, few of them neutral.

Isabelle Adjani came out of semi-retirement to play Sonia, apparently attracted to the way that Lilienfield's screenplay refuses to provide straightforward answers to the questions it dramatises – although the fact that she was herself born in an 'immigrant' suburb of Paris to a German mother and Algerian father may also have influenced her decision to take on the role. Her tour-de-force performance (which earned her a César, a Lumière award and an Étoile d'Or) concentrates the film's many tensions and contradictions into the mercurial emotions of a single character who is far too flawed to be in any simple way a heroine. She flits with unhinged efficiency from downtrodden victim to empowered avenger to self-sacrificing protector, without ever quite forgetting to be a teacher. She is having a day like no other - but Lilienfield's broader thesis is that those living in France's banlieues are in fact "hostages for life".

The only pity here is that the ending is so mawkish – otherwise, Skirt Day is a class act.

Reviewed on: 12 Nov 2010
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A teacher accidentally takes her class hostage.
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Festivals:

BIFF 2009
French 2010

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If you like this, try:

The Class