Teacher at the End of Her Tether
Skirt Day/La journée de la jupe appears for the first time in this country as one of the hundred-three features and shorts representing forty-six countries at the 17th Annual African Diaspora Film Festival. Set in France, it yet reflects the “global black experience,” or more accurately African experience, in peopling its inner-city class (and staff) with hyphenated Europeans, dark- and light-skinned alike, first-generation of Algerian-Muslim descent.
Director Jean-Paul Lilienfeld’s original screenplay tempted Isabelle Adjani back to the big screen for the first time since 2003, reportedly since it does not point moralizing fingers “but just confronts viewers with a harsh reality.” Common sense suggests that, although her deceptive-looking Sonia Bergerac repeats that she is “a French teacher” -- nationality, not subject matter -- the actress’ father’s Algerian birth and Turkish forebears entered in; that, and her refusal to wear pants at fifteen “because her hips were too big.”
Bergerac is already a sore point at a high school of last resort for uninterested, foul-mouthed, self-proclaimed promiscuous, potentially violent kids. She cannot hook them on Molière -- in whose plays Adjani herself had been an adolescent sensation at the Comédie-Française -- her trademark boots and knee-length skirts bring sneers and a bad reputation, and she has neither respect nor backing from resigned principal Cauvin (Jackie Berroyer).
Burned out, and her husband Frédéric (Marc Citti) giving up and getting out, she confronts surly student Mouss M’Doupe (Yann Ebonge), whose hidden pistol falls to the floor and, in a scuffle, flesh-wounds him. Chaining the soundproofed door, she brandishes the weapon, apparently going ballistic. Echoing “The Hostage -- helluva movie,” she forces nine students to recite from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme and to confront their own braggadocio, sexual posturing, anger, fear, and racist attitudes (at one time, they ask if she is Jewish).
Believing the hostage-taker to be Mouss, whom the teacher says will not speak during cell-phone communication, the police push through parents panicked by irresponsible BFM-TV reporters. His own marital morass paralleling Bergerac’s, negotiator Lieutenant Labouret (Denis Podalydès) tries to placate his departing wife, avoid bloodshed on the scene, and endure the sex-based insults of a fellow officer (Yann Collette, as Bechet) bent on immediate intervention by SWAT Unit 7.
Teaching staff are divided about Bergerac, while the hostages, terrified and never fully losing the jitters, come to open up, revealing angst, animosities and resentment, bullying and forced thefts, a filmed rape and a mother beaten to death in Algeria in 1994. Coeds Nawel and Farida (Sonia Amori and Sarah Douali) and sensitive picked-on Mehmet (Khalid Berkouz) rally to their teacher, the opposite trajectory from that of the pantsuited feminist Minister of Education (Nathalie Besançon).
The true situation out in the open, the hostage-taking teacher enumerates her demands, most puzzling of which is the declaration of an official Skirt Day, when women are to wear skirts and not be stigmatized as “loose” or “provocative.”
Action concentrated within the school building, the grainy eighty-seven minutes do not make a facile attempt to show her as cause-célèbre spokesperson for the sizeable disadvantaged immigrant community. Short even in boots, and plumper than when the country voted her the second most beautiful woman around, Adjani plays it by turns whimsical, manic, confused, and downright dangerous. Her demand for skirts, reactionary to some, is actually for freedom, while her stand for learning and against prejudice and despair may be greeted by objections to its neo-conservative insistence that the downtrodden can rise through their own efforts (with the implication that those who cannot find their bootstraps, deserve not to).
Some criticism about feeble acting except for the marvelous lead is off base, for the cast is convincing. This certainly includes the amateur student performers, whose characters, following their teacher’s generous protecting lie, come to understand her. Unexpected and quick, the exact how of the dénouement is difficult to catch, but the result is clear, in this film more candid, truthful and affecting than many another urban school drama that tries to ride the coattails of Blackboard Jungle.
(Released by Cinema Epoch; not rated by MPAA.)