Dir/scr: Jean-Paul Lilienfeld. France/Belgium. 2009. 88mins.
Somewhere inside Skirt Day is an acerbic comedy-drama with an urgent message to impart about social tensions in contemporaryFrance. Unfortunately, Jean-Paul Lilienfeld’s film plays at such an overheated pitch that subtleties are lost from the start. The film is built on a starring turn from Isabelle Adjani - her first theatrical feature in five years - but her performance throughout is ramped up to frenetic and rather stagey excess. The film should find it a warm theatrical welcome on release in France next month, and brash accessibility will make it reasonably exportable, especially following Laurent Cantet’s similarly-themed The Class. But Skirt Day will thrive long-term as the sort of film screened on DVD by teachers hoping to fuel heated discussions in social studies classes.
Adjani plays Sonia Bergerac, a teacher in a Parisian inner city school, who - it’s clear from the hectic opening scene - is just not up to the job. Sonia blusters and panics as she faces a barrage of insults, sexual innuendo and menacing disrespect from a wildly unruly multi-racial teenage class. In the school’s basement drama studio, Sonia intervenes in a spat and finds that one boy is carrying a gun. Grabbing the firearm, she suddenly finds herself in control and, locking the class in, proceeds to teach them Molière at gunpoint.
Meanwhile, arguments break out among the school staff under ineffectual principal Cauvin (Berroyer), while a SWAT police team moves in, headed by Labouret (Podalydès), a well-meaning but distracted hostage negotiator. While the crisis exposes the prejudices among assorted teachers and authority figures, downstairs Sonia teaches her class some home truths about racial and sexual tolerance.
The blackly-comic scenario plays against the background of racial and cultural mistrust which has placed under question many of the liberal assumptions long taken for granted in France. In particular, Sonia’s insistence on wearing a skirt exposes her to accusations from all sides: her pupils think she’s sexually loose, while female colleagues complain she’s setting back the cause of feminism. In fact, the film cleverly uses the skirt as a metaphor for the Muslim veil so controversially banned by the secular French school system.
While Skirt Day has a complex, provocative script that calls for delicate handling, as a director Lilienfeld fails to meet the challenge. He allows Adjani to so overplay the histrionic intensity that this encourages her young co-stars to raise the volume accordingly. Among the other players, only Podalydès brings some welcome reserve to his part.
This overheated tone undermines Skirt Day’s satire, and the film’s impeccably liberal plea could easily be misread as a tabloid-y conservative rant of the all-going-to-hell-in-a-handcart variety. This ambivalence is part of the film’s polemical strategy; still, it seems a lapse of judgment to so insistently characterise the class members as abusive, volatile tinderbox material.
One or two of the young cast, however, distinguish themselves, notably Sonia Amori as an Algerian girl who briefly seizes power. However, Cantet’s The Class has set a very high benchmark, both for depiction of inner-city school life and for working with young non-professionals. Beside it, Skirt Day looks very coarse indeed.
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