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.