'The Kindergarten Teacher': Cannes Review

The Kindergarten Teacher Film Still - P 2014
Courtesy of Haut et Court

The Kindergarten Teacher Film Still - P 2014

An ambitious, aesthetically potent Israeli drama that’s at once bizarre, beautiful and deeply unsettling.

Locarno special jury prize laureate Nadav Lapid (“Policeman”) returns with his second feature, which premiered in a special screening at the Cannes Critics’ Week.

CANNES -- Not many filmmakers could pull off a pitch like the one in The Kindergarten Teacher, whose story centers on a woman obsessed with her 5-year-old student and his remarkable gift for poetry. Yet Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid (Policeman) not only makes this rich and rather strange tale convincing on screen, but he does so with the aesthetic prowess of a first-class auteur, combining a realistic, at times documentary approach with cinematic flights-of-fancy that are often thrilling to behold. And even if the film somewhat wears out its welcome at two hours, there’s no question that this sophomore feature confirms Lapid as a talent to be reckoned with.

Selected for a special screening at the Cannes Critics’ Week, the Franco-Israeli co-production should see plenty of festival play to follow, as well as art house bookings with distributors willing to take a gamble on a difficult yet powerful picture. And while Policeman -- which won Locarno’s special jury prize in 2011 -- will finally be receiving a one-week run at Lincoln Center this coming June, Teacher could see even more exposure after making its world premiere on the Croisette.

If Lapid’s first feature used a bifurcated structure to tackle Israel’s divide between the haves and the have-nots, pitting a squad of anti-terrorist cops against a gang of left-wing militants, The Kindergarten Teacher is a more straightforward and intimate affair, tuning out much of the background noise to focus directly on its titular heroine, Nira (Sarit Larry), and the boy, Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), who quickly turns her life upside-down.

First seen in her humble Tel Aviv apartment alongside an unnamed husband (Lior Raz), the forty-something Nira leads a fairly low-key existence, spending nights at home and days in a vibrant kindergarten classroom, where she’s been teaching for fifteen years. But that all changes when her student Yoav recites a five-line ode to unrequited love that’s both astutely simple and incredibly evocative, prompting Nira to ask the kid’s nanny (Ester Rada) where the poems are coming from.

As it turns out, Yoav is a sort of Arthur Rimbaud just out of his diapers, a child prodigy who falls into a trance before improvising verses for those who care to listen. Since Nira is a wannabe bard herself, she takes Yoav’s poetry to a writers’ workshop, passing it off as her own oeuvre and winning admiration from her classmates and professor (Israeli singer Hamuchtar). Yet her interest in the boy hardly stops there, and as Nira becomes convinced that Yoav is a bona fide genius, her passion turns into an obsession that will have dangerous consequences for teacher and student alike.

If the somewhat far-fetched plot seems better suited for M. Night Shyalaman, Lapid’s approach is so cautious yet so ambitious, he manages to weave an engrossing narrative that -- despite some longueurs after the one-hour mark -- grows progressively intense as Nira slides into a near-manic state, whisking Yoav along for the ride. The film raises various questions about artistic creation and integrity, especially in a society that seems to have little place for either, without ever seeming too heavy-handed, allowing the characters and the story to eclipse any kind of grandstanding.

Yet at the same time, Lapid offers up a wealth of stylistic flourishes to accompany the action, beginning with an opening where Nira’s husband deliberately bumps the camera -- Jean-Luc Godard is never far away, most notably in a late dance number à la Band of Outsiders -- and continuing with sequence-shots where DP Shai Goldman captures Yoav and the other kids at ground level, twirling with them in circles as they dance, play and nap in the sanctum of their schoolhouse. All of this builds to a finale set in a hotel room that’s masterfully shot and staged, creating suspense out of a handful of elements and bringing the film’s themes together within a single space.

Making her first screen appearance in over a decade, the theatre-trained Larry offers up a tense performance that’s both touching and troubling: at times we empathize with her quest for artistic purity, at others we wish someone would lock her up asap. But it’s newcomer Shaidman who’s even more disturbing, playing a pudgy-faced little boy whose intentions are never quite clear, oscillating between youthful innocence and an almost demonic power to persuade Nira of his brilliance. It’s got to be one of the most ambiguous depictions of a child in recent memory, and it rings awfully true.

Alongside the terrific cinematography, editing by Era Lapid (the director’s mother) constantly jumps between indoors and outdoors, school and home, yet allows many scenes to play out in long takes till the end. Sound design by Aviv Aldema offers up a gritty array of atmospheric effects -- scooters, car horns, jackhammers -- that creep into the guarded world of poetry that Nira desperately tries to save.

Per the press notes, Yoav's poems were written by Lapid himself -- between the ages of four and seven.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)

Production companies: Pie Films, Haut et Court, Arte France Cinema

Cast: Sarit Larry, Avi Shnaidman, Lior Raz, Hamuchtar, Ester Rada

Director, screenwriter: Nadav Lapid

Producers: Talia Kleinhendler, Osnat Handelsman-Keren, Carole Scotta

Director of photography: Shai Goldman

Production designer: Miguel Merkin

Costume designer: Doron Ashkenazi

Editor: Era Lapid

Sales agent: Le Pacte

No rating, 120 minutes