The raw flipside to Cannes Palme d’Or winner “The Class,” high school drama “Skirt Day” marks a blistering return to the bigscreen after five years by Isabelle Adjani that’s sure to generate plenty of ink. Within the framework of an apparent hostage drama in a suburban high school, pic tackles head-on such issues as cultural identity, mixed-race education, teenage anomie and political correctness that are valid way beyond the borders of just Gaul. Theatrical potential for this HD item is specialized rather than broad, though pic does grip as a pure movie rather than becoming a preachy pamphlet.
The film is clearly a personal undertaking by Adjani, whose last major role was in Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s WWII drama “Bon voyage” (2003) and who has since effectively been semi-retired. Almost unrecognizable as the stout, middle-aged teacher who’s driven to an act of desperation by her unruly, disrespectful students, the 53-year-old actress could easily cap her career with this role alone.
In what is to become a foretaste of the movie’s direct, no-B.S. approach, Sonia Bergerac (Adjani) is first seen in closeup, confessing she’s shot some people. “These kids had become my enemies,” she says.
Pic flashes back to the main story, which reveals Sonia is a teacher at a school for “difficult” pupils: Class discipline is zero, the roost of white, black and Mideast teens is ruled by gangster-in-the-making Mouss M’Diop (Yann Ebonge), and Sonia, who’s already on antidepressants after her husband’s decision to leave her, is near the end of her rope.
The plot takes off when she’s attempting to hold a class on Moliere’s play “Le bourgeois gentilhomme” in the school’s small theater, and she discovers a gun in a bag she’s confiscated from Mouss. Continuous threats and insults by the big black guy lead to the gun accidentally going off in Sonia’s hand, wounding Mouss in the leg.
What begins as a desperate attempt by Sonia to win the kids’ attention the only way they understand — at the point of a gun — turns into a muddled hostage situation. School principal Cauvin (Jackie Berroyer) calls in the cops, and suddenly the school is in the middle of a full-scale hostage crisis.
As the media, SWAT troops, parents and pols — the latter including a canny minister (Nathalie Besancon) — descend on the school, the situation devolves into chaos, with even the school’s staff taking sides. Meanwhile, inside the locked room, relationships between the students start to change, led by the girls, who revolt against the boys’ racist, sexist stance.
Script by actor-turned-director Jean-Paul Lilienfeld, who’s recently worked mostly in TV, is deliberately provocative, challenging well-meaning liberalism and the loonier aspects of contempo political correctness (Sonia wears a skirt to school, breaking a rule imposed by the principal). Most boldly, it also marbles the drama with moments of comedy (largely around Labouret’s character), which seem to point a finger at the whole mess Western society has got itself into through establishment mismanagement.
Clever coda pulls a switcheroo that completely redefines everything auds have been led to believe — and also has a personal resonance beyond the movie itself.
Only occasionally going overboard in her scenes of personal hysteria, Adjani throws herself into the central role with utter conviction, nicely balanced by Denis Podalydes as a sympathetic, sometimes blundering cop. Besancon is creepy as the icy femme pol, and the large cast of supports round out the picture of a microcosm in turmoil. Pascal Rabaud’s HD lensing looks fine on the bigscreen.