'School's Out' ('L'heure de la sortie'): Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Plenty creepy but psychologically lacking.

Laurent Lafitte (Paul Verhoeven's 'Elle') is a substitute teacher who has to deal with a mysterious class of geniuses in this new film from French director Sebastien Marnier.

A substitute teacher is put in charge of a class of future geniuses after their home-room teacher commits suicide in the creepy French social drama School’s Out (L’heure de la sortie). This adaptation of the novel by Christophe Dufosse is headlined by Comedie-Francaise actor Laurent Lafitte, who plays the clueless Catholic neighbor in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. His straightforward educator starts to think something might be up with his newly assigned pupils, who are at once menacing and creepily secretive and quiet. Though sophomore director Sebastien Marnier (Faultless), who also co-wrote the screenplay, doesn’t manage to sustain the tension throughout, this is nonetheless a fascinating work that should find a place in niche release locally and on the festival circuit internationally. It had its world premiere in Venice in the new Sconfini section, which appropriately programs unclassifiable or unsettling works.

After their teacher fatally throws himself out of their classroom, the pupils of a French ninth-grade class are assigned 40-year-old Pierre Hoffman (Lafitte, easily carrying the film on his fit shoulders) as their substitute teacher. The kids are not only shell-shocked from the recent events but are also special in the sense that they're in a separate class for “intellectually advanced children,” something that requires some adjustments from Pierre, since they are way further ahead than their peers in parallel classes. 

The two class reps are Apolline (Luana Bajrami), who looks like an older version of one of the twins from Kubrick’s The Shining, and Dimitri (Victor Bonnel), whose delicate build sharply contrasts with his startlingly intense gaze. When they speak, they sound more like adults with something to hide than precocious teenagers, which is unsettling for both Pierre and the audience. The fact that the face of Brice (Thomas Guy) is messed up one day but the accident is then barely acknowledged by the other kids or the school’s administrative personnel strikes Hoffman as very odd, while even in his personal life, he starts to receive strange calls from an unknown number, making him feel ill at ease even at home (where he lives alone).

Marnier, greatly aided by Romain Carcanade’s glossy yet foreboding cinematography, and Zombie Zombie’s contemporary and discreetly menacing score, establishes a sense of unease from the get-go, with things slowly becoming creepier as time passes and no explanation seems to be forthcoming. Of course, there’s only so long that all the cards can be withheld, so finally Hoffman starts to follow a small group of pupils — including Apolline and Dimitri — and observes them at regular get-togethers at an abandoned quarry, a location that, even in broad daylight, registers as sinister.  

But the explanation of what the kids are up to and especially why they are up to it isn’t handled with the same confidence and intelligence as the story’s prolonged setup. Part of the explanation involves a set of DVDs — why not VHS tapes at this point, as DVDs also feel way too old school for contemporary ninth-graders? — that delves into the kids’ thoughts on politics, the environment and morality in ways that feel facile and superficial. What is unclear is whether this is intentional, caused by the supposedly hyperintelligent kids’ naivete or lack of life experience, or whether this due to a lack of convincing scripting — the screenplay is by the director and Elise Griffon — and direction.

In any case, there’s a sense that the second act stalls somewhat, as it keeps examining similar material without really advancing either the story or deepening the understanding of the characters, with most of the kids finally remaining creepy avatars of hyperintelligent beings and only Hoffman really emerging as a three-dimensional character. Indeed, how French kids deal with issues such as terrorism, globalization and other complex contemporary matters is more convincingly explored in the work of filmmakers such as Laurent Cantet (The Class, The Workshop). 

The final act of School's Out involves, as the title suggest, an end-of-year school outing that predictably goes haywire, though here, too, the material lacks pizzazz. After an hour of build-up, one would expect some kind of spectacular fallout rather than the discreetly staged mishap that we get, followed by a second ending of sorts that’s certainly eerie and more than a little ironic but that feels too much like it’s tacked on rather than a logical — if hopefully still surprising — destination after everything that has come before it. 

Production companies: Avenue B Productions, 2L Production
Cast: Laurent Lafitte, Emmanuelle Bercot, Gringe, Gregory Montel, Pascal Greggory, Luana Bajrami, Victor Bonnel, Veronique Ruggia Saura, Thomas Scimeca, Adele Castillon
Director: Sebastien Marnier
Screenplay: Sebastien Marnier, Elise Griffon based on the novel by Christophe Duffose
Producer: Caroline Bonmarchand
Director of photography: Romain Carcanade
Production designer: Guillaume Deviercy
Costume designer: Marite Coutard
Editor: Isabelle Manquillet
Music: Zombie Zombie
Sales: Celluloid Dreams
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)

In French
No rating, 103 minutes