School’s Out is an odd mix of elements, not helped by being saddled with a poor English language title. All that title means to me is an Alice Cooper song and the idea of an American school breaking up for summer and for some students ‘forever’. The French title is far more intriguing. I’m not a French speaker but it suggests to me the idea of ‘a specific time to leave’. The first scene in the film, when a teacher suddenly decides to leap from the second floor window of his school classroom, makes for a suspenseful start. What does his ‘leaving’ mean?
At some point I’m going to have to question how My French Film Festival selects the films it offers. This particular film was first shown at Venice in 2018 and it stars Laurent Lafitte, who was also in the first film I saw in the festival, Savage. I understand that Lafitte is a kind of celebrity actor in France, appearing on stage as a member of la Comédie Française as well as frequently in a wide range of French films. I realise that I have seen him before in several films, but not in leading roles so much. Added to Lafitte’s presence, this is an adaptation of a 2002 novel by Christophe Dufossé and it is directed by another novelist making his second feature film, Sébastien Marnier. The novel was published in English (with the same re-titling) and the book was described as a ‘thriller’. Dufossé suggests that Stephen King was an influence and reviews of the novel suggest a mixing of a teen/high school story and a thriller element. This also affects the film, but films can make generic references simply by reminding us of other films.
The film’s narrative opens much like the excellent French-Canadian film Monsieur Lazhar (Canada 2011), but with some significant differences – we see the moment of the jump, it is secondary school not a primary school and the substitute teacher arrives quickly and without much of an interview. Although what follows is a quite different story, there a still a few elements that stay the same – a teacher new to the school faced with a class being counselled for trauma. The students themselves seem about 14 or 15? One comforting sight for me is to see them (and their teachers) dressed in casual clothes and not school uniforms as in the UK.
The new teacher is Pierre, like his predecessor a man in early middle age. Laurent Lafitte was 45 when he made the film but his character announces he is 40. He discovers that the class he must take over is a select group of very high flyers. There are just 12 students and he soon discovers that they are already a year ahead in curriculum terms. One of the two leaders immediately challenges Pierre, asking why at 40 he is still a substitute teacher? The school itself is located in a large country house in a wealthy rural area. Reviews suggest this is meant to be an élite private school but there seems to be involvement from the local mayor and ‘city hall’. (I understand that ‘private’ schools contracted by the state exist in France.) What is important, however, is that the school values the high marks its ‘gifted students’ are likely to get in exams and is therefore prepared to be indulgent towards them. It seems odd, therefore, that Pierre is appointed without evidence of vetting.
It doesn’t take long for Pierre to recognise that six of the 12 stick very closely together and that the six includes the two class representatives at the weekly teachers meeting. After a few classroom incidents it’s likely that older film fans will recognise the narrative of The Midwich Cuckoos (aka The Village of the Damned, UK 1960) in which a group of alien children are born in a village and grow very quickly especially in terms of intelligence, with telepathic abilities. There is a sequence later in School’s Out when the threatening side of the group is cleverly used in thriller mode. Pierre finds himself in a classic situation, feeling he must spy on the students to discover what they are up to, but also aware that they are working on him and putting him under pressure. The other teaching staff seem less concerned about the student behaviour. I was also reminded at moments of the German film, The Wave (Die Welle, 2008) which again has a rather different storyline but shares the same starting point of a single teacher engaged with a class in a project with a basis in social psychology and group behaviour.
There is no point in spoiling the narrative and I’ve left plenty of interesting detail to uncover. The 2002 storyline has been updated and the real reason for the students’ behaviour arguably makes more sense in 2018 than it did in 2002. But that doesn’t mean that the plotting works. As some of the original novel reviewers suggest, the script seems unable to resolve what, in the most basic terms, the film is ‘about’. The more the thriller genre narrative takes hold, the stranger and more frustrating the school-based drama becomes. I don’t think we ever meet any of the parents of the six high flyers and the school’s headteacher seems only dimly aware of the potential trouble they might cause. The head is played by Pascal Greggory who also plays a similar kind of character in The Page Turner (La tourneuse de pages, France 2006) in which his wife, a musician, is psychologically undermined by a young woman. There are many potential sub-plots in School’s Out that might be explored – or might have been excised. I did enjoy watching the film but in the end I felt a little dissatisfied. It is available to buy or rent on Youtube. Here is the trailer (with English subs):
Such is the difficulty of tracking films via festival screenings that I’d forgotten that Nick reviewed this film on the blog when it appeared at the Leeds Film Festival in 2018. His take (much the same as mine) is here.
Level 16 is an SF thriller, directed by Danishka Esterhazy. SF/science fiction/horror is one of the strengths of Anglophone Canadian cinema and since I’m keen to see SF and Canadian films, especially by women, it seemed an obvious choice for me to book. What I hadn’t realised was that this screening was at the beginning of the first full day of ‘FrightFest’ as a festival within the main festival. Sitting on the front row (numbered seating instead of the usual unreserved) in a jam-packed GFT1 was a new experience. I’ve never seen so many cinemagoers in black T-shirts together before. This was all generally good fun but the announcements and promos and a short film extended the running time of the slot considerably. When I finally escaped the theatre I discovered that I had 1 minute before my next (2 hours plus) feature. That’s not good!
Level 16 was preceded by a short video welcome/introduction by Danishka Esterhazy on a recording (she’s currently shooting in Hawaii) and she told us that this was a film inspired to some extent by her own schooling. She must have had a grim time. The film is set in the very near future or alternative present and focuses on a group of teenage girls in a mysterious boarding school. They are never allowed out of their windowless rooms on the grounds that the air/light outside will damage their skin. Each day they are put through rituals of learning about appropriate behaviour for young ladies, but not much conventional academic learning. They wear long concealing dresses and take medication each day (described as vitamins). They are taught via TV screens, old ‘public service’ films and Hollywood classics. Each girl is named after a classic Hollywood beauty and the two central characters are ‘Vivien’ and ‘Sophia’. The only two adults they see most of the time are the tall, glamorous blonde Miss Brixil and the seemingly kindly Dr Miro. But if they are punished, the girls are taken away by black-clad ‘guards’ and put in ‘solitary’. If they are obedient the girls gradually progress to the next ‘level’ and when they reach ‘Level 16’ they believe that prospective adoptive parents/employers are going to select them to live in beautiful homes. These visitors come to see the girls who are presented in a drug-induced sleep. However, it is inevitable that one day a girl is going to rebel and avoid the medication. Once she realises what is happening will she be able to convince the others who, after years of indoctrination and drug regimes are likely to be resistant? Is it possible for the girls to act collectively given their histories?
The ‘prison break’ or POW escape offers another genre repertoire from which to draw alongside the girls school, horror and SF repertoires, but it means that the pacing and tone of the narrative changes significantly in the final section. Up until the last five minutes I thought the film worked well but I found the ending rushed and unconvincing. However, the large audience of ‘fright fans’ seemed to be appreciative. Certainly, it is an intelligent film which uses its limited budget effectively. The performances from the four principal actors, all experienced in Canadian TV and film, are very effective. I was intrigued to read about Danishka Esterhazy’s background as a member of the Winnipeg Film Group and her frustration to try to get this film made as set out in an interview on the SYFY Wire website. The long struggle took around ten years with familiar problems in finding funding for this ‘feminist dystopian thriller’ with a whole catalogue of sexist assumptions about what should be in a film like this and how the girls should be presented. In the meantime, Esterhazy made other features that were more attractive to funders, including as she describes it:
a Brontë novel, but set in Canada. Which I thought was like, ‘You think my sci-fi film’s weird, my Canadian Brontë film is really weird!’
That Brontë reference is also an indicator of the kind of research Esterhazy undertook since Level 16 benefits from a study of Victorian etiquette books and ideas about how young women should behave. I think that Level 16 would be an interesting film to show to students, because of the way it confounds that array of assumptions (e.g. teenage girls won’t watch SF, women don’t direct SF, there needs to be a romance etc.). It also offers a useful comparison with more traditional SF films on similar topics such as the two Stepford Wives films and something like Never Let Me Go (UK-US 2010) with its much higher cultural status. The success of The Handmaid’s Tale on TV probably helps as well.
Diabolo menthe was the first film directed by Diane Kurys who has become associated with films about women’s stories, some of which are autobiographical. As Carrie Tarr (2000: 240) has suggested, the film’s critical and commercial success on its release is due partly to the impact of early 1970s feminism which helped create an audience for women’s stories. Kurys would go on to direct thirteen films (so far) and this first success would see her name associated with women’s films – something she herself resisted. (See Carrie Tarr (2000) ‘Maternal Legacies: Diane Kury’s Coup de Foudre (1983) in Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau (eds) French Film: text and contexts (2nd ed), London Routledge.)
The film begins at the end of the summer holidays with Cliff Richard’s ‘Living Doll’ playing on the soundtrack as one of the central characters, Anne Weber (Eléonore Klarwein), leaves the beach in Normandy after her sister Frédérique (Odile Michel) is enticed into the sea by a boy. It’s the last day of the holiday and the girls are waved off at the station by their father. Next day their mother (Anouk Ferjac) sends them off to the first day of the new school term in the academic year 1963-4. Anne is 13 and Frédérique 15 so they will generally go their own ways in the strict single-sex school. The Jewish Webers are always going to be on the outside. Although the main focus is on Anne, we will also follow something of the stories of the Frédérique and of the girls’ mother. They only see their father on rare occasions. The film’s title refers to a soft drink served in the café which is Frédérique’s hangout, but which Anne visits in an act of bravado.
The film is like a diary of the school year with incidents at school matched by the embarrassments of domestic life – like going on a picnic with mum’s new boyfriend. Some of the teachers are mean and unpleasant and the film has fun with them. We also meet some of Anne’s friends in her class and elsewhere in the school – and also Frédérique’s classmates. Many of the incidents involve what I can only guess was/is very common in girls’ schools – finding ways to avoid gym and double maths, cheating in class, asking your mum for a first pair of stockings etc. I recognised some of the stunts that we pulled around the same time in school – and the cruel way we treated some of the less confident teachers (see the image above). Kurys is very clever in the way she weaves more serious issues into a narrative about teenagers in school. One of these is the attempt by middle-class parents to ‘expose’ teachers in the school with leftist backgrounds. Anne finds herself unwittingly part of this at a friend’s house and at the same time her mother is being condescended to as a mother who isn’t home for her children. Significantly, it is the one teacher who seems aware of questions of pedagogy who prompts her class to ask questions about politics. One girl movingly offers her personal testimony about being witness to an OAS terror attack in Paris and being horrified by the policing of the aftermath. Frédérique will get deeper into the political issues at school, challenging the fascists and anti-semites.
The writing is very sharp about the petty squabbles between the two sisters and about tastes and pretensions. Frédérique aspires to be an intellectual who claims to have seen a Resnais film, but agrees to go with Anne to see The Great Escape – but draws the line at the idea of seeing the Cliff Richard musical Summer Holiday (UK 1963). (This is the third mention of Richard or his songs in the film and a Shadows instrumental follows – presumably the Beatles hadn’t broken in France at this time?) For some reason, I can’t find images of Anouk Ferjac as the mother, but she does have an important role in the narrative. Carrie Tarr comments on that mainstream film convention that sees the mother in this kind of narrative as ‘angel’ or ‘witch’ – sacrificing all for her daughters or strangling them in her apron strings. Mme Weber (I don’t think we hear her first name) is a more human figure who tries to be strict about school but has fun with her daughters and tries to do her best for them, but still have a life of her own. The film accurately represents the period (i.e. I recognised what would have happened in the UK in 1963) but by modern standards the girls have a lot of leeway and do things that might now be considered ‘shocking’ – such as when Frédérique hitch-hikes alone or Anne is alone in the house for a few days. Frédérique’s close friendship with an older man, one of the other girls’ fathers, also provokes.
The film ends as it began, back on the beach a year later. It’s a good-looking film, photographed by Philippe Rousselot (who went to Hollywood in the 1980s). I liked the montage of stills that show Frédérique on holiday and overall Kurys, on her directorial début, does a great job in representing school life and marshalling such a large cast. My only visual problem with the film is that with all the girls wearing the same white coats in the classroom it’s sometimes difficult to tell if we are in Anne’s or Frédérique’s class. The film was shot in the ‘real’ Lycée Jules Ferry and I was intrigued to discover that Ferry was the politician responsible for enshrining the concept of laïcité (secularisation) in the French state education system.
The Monthly Film Bulletin review of the film by John Gillett on its UK release in 1980 is short and not particularly helpful. He makes the obvious point that all French films of this kind will inevitably be compared to Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (1959) and there are certainly elements that Diabolo menthe shares with the earlier film. But there are important differences and, as Tarr detects, stories like this which involve three central female characters needed to be made in the 1970s and this one hit the spot. Gillett seems to read the film as being mainly ‘about’ Anne’s alienation – from school and her family. I didn’t read it that way. I think she is experiencing what many younger siblings must feel. It is interesting though that the narrative feels mostly about Anne in the early part, but later shifts focus to Frédérique. If the film is ‘semi-autobiographical’, Anne represents Diane Kurys as the younger sister and she seems to have turned out fine. I do wonder if MFB critics lavished the same amount of energy reviewing ‘first films’ as they did for established auteurs. I enjoyed the film very much and kudos to the BFI for re-releasing the DVD with some interesting ‘extras’. It’s well worth digging out.
Here’s the original ‘bande annonce‘ (no subtitles, but the feel of the film is easy to grasp).