Film Review: Skirt Day

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Berlin International Film Festival -- Panorama
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BERLIN -- Isabelle Adjani's return to cinema after a half-decade absence is marred by a nasty, if not exploitive, script about an unhinged schoolteacher caught up in a hostage situation in "Skirt Day" (La Journee de la Jupe). You might think of writer-director Jean-Paul Lillenfeld's film as a cross between Palme d'Or winner "Class" and "Dog Day Afternoon," but that makes it sound more provocative than it is. In those films, an audience knows where its sympathies lie. In "Skirt Day," you can only shake your head at the contagion of idiocy.

This HD-shot film will be limited to specialty venues.

Lillenfeld has a broad agenda as he takes aim at inequities in the French school system, the tyranny of political correctness, the protective mantle of victimization worn by many youngsters, rampant sexism, the blindness of parents and thorny issues of identity that plague French immigrants.

All worthy subjects, but his contrived scenario unleashes vile hatreds and stunning revelations with such theatrical flourishes that the film feels more like a group psychotherapy session. Plausibility melts away early and it's downhill from there.

Adjani's Sonia Bergerac is a walking time bomb. Over her head teaching literature to hostile immigrant high schoolers, she gulps antidepressants to cope with a deteriorating family life and vandalism by her students. She adds to her stress by deliberately wearing prohibited short skirts to school.

Her class is its usual chaos one day in the school theater when she grabs a bag being fought over by two students. A handgun falls out. She picks it up in a panic, a bullying student menaces her and the gun discharges, wounding the boy in the leg.

Suddenly, she's got a gun and by God these kids for once will listen to her lesson. Suddenly, she's got "respect." She locks the doors and hits them with Moliere. Yes, she does.

Outside all the predictable things happen: A SWAT team shows up, a hostage negotiator and a SWAT captain argue over tactics, hysterical parents gather, the media gets an earful from teachers and a dithering principal and a government minister just wants the damn thing over no matter what the body count.

Inside the locked classroom though, Lillenfeld has a three-act play going. After the initial shock and Moliere lesson comes the venting of racial and religious animosity, then revelations about an unreported crime against a female student, another revelation about Sonia's own background and a game of who's got the gun where it gets grabbed by one student and later another with the expected tragic results.

No one can doubt that blood hostilities exist among these kids from a mostly Muslim underclass in France -- and elsewhere. But where "The Class" thoughtfully let all this simmer to a boil, Lillenfeld goes for shock and awe right from the start. Not one moment is believable. Rather, you feel the filmmaker's agenda behind every action and line.

Adjani never looks comfortable in this role. She overdoes each transition from mousy teacher to teacher-terrorist to earnest sympathizer. Some of the young actors manage a moment here and there where they break loose from the stereotypes. But those moments, alas, are few.

Production companies: Mascaret Films, Arte France, Fontana, R.T.B.F.
Cast: Isabelle Adjani, Denis Podalydes, Yann Collette, Jackie Berroyer, Khalid Berkouz, Yann Ebonge, Sonia Amori, Kevin Azais, Sarah Douali, Hassan Mezhoud, Karim Zakraoui, Fily Doumbia, Salim Boughidene, Meleze Bouzid
Director/screenwriter: Jean-Paul Lillenfeld
Producer: Benedicte Lesage, Ariel Askenazi
Director of photography: Pascal Rabaud
Production designer: Olivier Jacquet
Music: Kohann
Costume designers: Chattoone, Agnes Beziers, Julien Reignoux
Editor: Aurique Delannoy
Sales: Rezo Films
No rating, 88 minutes