Sydney FF 2019: SCHOOL’S OUT – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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There’s an almost magical quality to the sensation where one single shot in a movie can instantly transport us to a similar scene in another film before we’ve even realized what has happened. For me, the opening scene of Sébastien Marnier’s School’s Out took me in the blink of an eye back to a film I’d almost entirely forgotten, Alexandros Avranas’s brutal Greek 2013 drama Miss Violence. Both films open in a similar way; an everyday scenario marked by a seemingly complete absence of tension or anxiety shows a figure from a small community of people calmly throw themselves out of an open window. In both films, a near-identical overhead shot of their bodies lying sprawled, bleeding and unmoving on the concrete below, provides the shocking opening which launches each film’s action. In Miss Violence, the victim is a young girl at a birthday party with her family. In School’s Out, the ages are reversed: the deceased is an older man, the teacher of a small class of 9th grade pupils in an elite French private school called St Josephs. The students, we soon learn, are “IACs” (“intellectually advanced students), the most academically advanced in the entire school.

Beyond this shot, there is little perhaps that would encourage further parallels to be drawn between these two films – undeniably they are quite different beasts – yet both in their own ways are framed around young people and the ways they have available to them to respond to and retaliate against power structures dominated by adults is a strong theme across both. With the arrival of the temporary teacher Pierre (Laurent Lafitte) at St Josephs to replace his unfortunate predecessor Eric (Cyrille Hertel), in School’s Out is through Pierre’s newcomer’s eyes that we largely see the film’s core action play out.

School’s Out is marked from the outset by the seasonal oppression that a too-hot summer brings; fields of grass are dried to a crisp, the sunlight blinding, the sweat flowing. Meeting his fellow teachers, Pierre notes that they too struggle with the temperature, but are largely welcoming. His first encounter with his students, however, is more complex; they interrogate him about his experience, emphasize that they have advanced well beyond their expected curriculum level, and openly mock his status as a replacement teacher, considering it synonymous with failure.

The tight-knit group are led by Apolline (Luàna Bajrami), who comfortably asks Pierre if he’s even vaguely capable of preparing them for their exams; all are polite, but clearly dismissive of his supposed authority. When Pierre attempts to defend a classmate in a school hallway assault, Apolline enquires of him in near-monotone “Sir, are you left wing?”. Uncanny and almost robotic, there’s an aspect of Wolf Rilla’s 1960 genre classic Village of the Damned with a touch of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed to School’s Out. From Pierre’s perspective, their economic privilege combined with their extremely high intelligence renders them somewhat alien and out of touch, and he becomes increasingly fascinated by their calm, open arrogance and rejection of what they see as the mediocrity of anyone not in their group. But, as he discovers, their unusual behaviour is perhaps not as irrational as he may have first assumed.

It would at first be far too easy to dismiss School’s Out as representative of generational anxieties about an increasingly vocal, empowered youth, whose voices around the world we see manifest on the daily news in everything from climate change protests to gun restriction rallies in the United States. But the film is far from this simplistic; rather, there is something much opaquer and consequently disturbing about the vision these young people have that the adults and even other students around them are simply not privy to.

School’s Out packs an impressive amount of ideological and tonal punch into what at first appearance could be mistaken for pedestrian genre film fare. Initial hints that it seeks to tread the familiar ground of the ‘evil child’ thriller trope as Pierre starts receiving strange phone calls and the power near his apartment flickers. His nightmares about his students increase as he witnesses a growing number of their sadistic rituals that they execute when they think no one is watching, making sense to them and them alone.

But as the bigger picture reveals itself – to us as much as Pierre, united as we are by a deliberate distance these young people have put between themselves and the rest of the world – their nihilist rituals become harder to dismiss as kids “testing their boundaries” (a friend of Pierre’s at one point even wonders if they’re just goths). Instead, what rises to the surface is a kind of perverse, existential activism in a doomed, self-destructive world. There is ultimately something far grander – and more upsetting – than simply bored, privileged thrill-seeking teens pushing their limits.

As the film’s title suggests, at the heart of School’s Out lies a fundamental transformation, less to do with the traditional coming-of-age trope initially suggested than something far more epic in its thematic vision; a fundamental shift in thinking, seeing, and being in broken, corrupt world. Although offering all the puzzle pieces of straightforward subgenres like the evil child film, these are ultimately red herrings film’s final moments reveal. School’s Out asks one powerful, poignant question: what is crazy in a crazy world?

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic for ABC Radio in Australia, She has written for Film International, Diabolique Magazine, Vulture, Overland, The Big Issue and her own website, The Blue Lenses. She has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema and co-edited collections on Elaine May, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Peter Strickland, and Alice in Wonderland in film. She frequently contributes commentaries, liner notes and video essays to home entertainment releases from companies such as Arrow Video, Kino Lorber, Eureka Entertainment, Second Sight and Severin Films. She is a Research Fellow at RMIT University and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).