'The Lesson' ('Izlaiduma gads'): Riga Review

The Lesson Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Riverbed Ltd.

The Lesson Still - H 2014

School's out forever

A classroom affair leads to cataclysmic consequences in this docudrama debut from Latvia

A female schoolteacher begins an ill-starred affair with one of her male students in this contemporary drama from the small Baltic state of Latvia. The first narrative feature by prize-winning documentary maker Andris Gauja is clearly limited in budget, but it is also an impressively mature character study with commendably global ambitions, including scenes shot in France and Russia. After stopovers at multiple festivals, among them Montreal and Chicago, The Lesson screened at the Riga International Film Festival last week, a newly launched event marking the final month in the Latvian capital’s yearlong tenure as European City of Culture. With more Euro screenings already booked, this feels like the kind of universal story that will cross borders.

Zane (Inga Alsina-Lasmane) is an attractive young teacher in the middle of breaking up with an unfaithful boyfriend when she takes a new job hosting Russian classes for a rowdy bunch of adolescents at a Riga school. Her duties also include mentoring students, blurring the line between educator and friend. Initially hostile and surly, the teenagers test their new teacher’s authority, but gradually admit her into their inner circle. Boozy beach parties, skinning dipping and sleepovers at Zane’s apartment follow, causing raised eyebrows and ripples of disapproval among her co-workers. Gauja’s documentary background pays dividends here, with plenty of fluid hand-held camerawork and nuanced, naturalistic performances.

Love-starved and newly single, Zane appears to be nervously edging toward romance with a fellow teacher, single father Uldis (Gatis Gaga), especially after she becomes a regular babysitter to his winningly cute toddler son. At the same time, she begins batting off cautiously flirtatious advances from one of her students, Max (Marcis Klatenbergs), the son of a wealthy businessman with shady Russian connections. Wily and persistent, Max slowly wears down her defenses with gifts and baubles, including glamorous foreign trips. After resisting temptation for months, Zane finally sleeps with Max in a Paris hotel.

Zane understandably seeks to keep the affair a secret, but it inevitably leaks, exploding almost immediately from private gossip to social-media scandal. As the teacher desperately struggles to hold on to both her job and her new lover, The Lesson shifts from carefully observed docudrama to frenetic, border-crossing crime thriller. This change of tone is jarring, but not ruinously so. Max’s reckless and violent behavior also defies logic, possibly due to Klatenbergs’ oddly blank, noncommittal performance. Gauja never quite makes Zane's intense attraction to him feel convincing.

Ending on an open-ended but unequivocally bleak note, The Lesson is an almost archetypal story of crime and punishment, couching a familiar subject in a fairly predictable narrative arc. If only Zane had watched other movies on this theme, like Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher or Richard Eyre’s Notes on a Scandal, she might have saved herself an awful lot of trouble. All the same, Gauja’s crafted debut feature is full of subtle observation and tingling tension. It is also elevated considerably by Alsina-Lasmane’s quietly magnetic performance, which injects 50 shades of emotional authenticity into the constant low-level power struggles between teacher and student.

Production companies: Riverbed, Mojo Raiser Production, Horosho Production

Cast: Inga Alsina-Lasmane, Marcis Klatenbergs, Ieva Apine, Gatis Gaga, Liena Smukste, Andrey Smolyakov

Director: Andris Gauja

Screenwriters: Lauris Gundars, Andris Gauja

Producers: Andris Gauja, Guna Stahovska

Cinematographer: Aleksandrs Grebnevs

Editor: Tambet Tasuja

Music: Andris Gauja

Sales company: Riverbed, Riga

No rating, 108 minutes