Sébastien Marnier’s latest offering may wear its influences on its sleeve – but as the saying goes, good artists borrow while great artists steal, and School’s Out is nothing less than great.
The first thing we see in School’s Out is a long, drawn out medium shot as the camera stares directly into the sun. It is only an image on a screen, accompanied by a mildly unsettling, high-pitched hum. It should not blind anyone. But the shot persists; the camera continues zooming ever so slowly and imperceptibly in on the sun. I start to think that maybe I should feel blinded; I should have a headache. And then, I do.
School’s Out is a movie that hinges almost entirely on this psychosomatically-induced state of dread. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it is not an easy watch, it is certainly a film that succeeds in becoming exponentially more unsettling as its slow-burn story unfolds. It is what viewers will certainly feel as soon as the title appears onscreen in no-nonsense, default Microsoft Office font Cambria, right after the movie’s (literally) explosive ending. It is also the feeling that protagonist Pierre Hoffman constantly finds himself returning to when he accepts a post as a substitute teacher at a prestigious academy in an idyllic French suburb. Summer is in full swing, exams are fast-approaching, and Hoffman’s predecessor has just thrown himself out of a second-storey window.
Hoffman, played by the excellent Laurent Lafitte, is out of his depth and it shows. Before this job he was nothing but an unemployed academic; smoking joints with his tattoo artist neighbour and working on a thesis about Kafka that he had no real intention of finishing due to his fear of committing to “the real world”. “I’m more ADHD than IPC,” he tells the headmaster, clearly discomfited at the thought of teaching so-called ‘Intellectually Precocious Children’ – intelligent teenagers who are the cream of the crop at their already illustrious college. Hoffman is a perfectly flawed protagonist – at forty years old he is single, a substitute teacher, and nowhere near as close to figuring out his own life as his own students are for themselves.
These flaws are also what makes Hoffman appear infinitely exploitable to his students – in particular a group of six sullen teenagers who deplore the rest of their “mediocre” schoolmates and who watched on with straight faces as their previous teacher lay broken and bleeding below their classroom window. Helmed by ringleaders (and class monitors) Dimitri and Apolline, Hoffman is slowly but surely drawn to investigate their strange behaviour, even as he is mocked, questioned, and belittled by them at every turn. What he finds is hardly child’s play. There are near-death situations voluntarily entered by the teenagers to “ensure they don’t feel pain”. There are secret videotapes with sickening footage of the planet’s environmental decline, cut and pasted together over a cheery EDM soundtrack. And then there are the phone calls that Hoffman keeps getting from an unknown number, featuring the soft sobs of an unknown woman.
If there’s one thing that School’s Out does fantastically, it’s keeping its audience intrigued at every turn, even in spite of the glacial pace of its plot – which in itself has been snatched straight from both Sion Sono’s Suicide Club and Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Red herrings and fever dreams abound as the film builds to its climax, seen through Romain Carcanade’s brilliant cinematographic lens and soundtracked by Zombie Zombie’s sparse, spine-tingling synths. Marnier also manages to turn School’s Out into a nuanced study of voyeurism – is Hoffman’s obsession intrusive simply by virtue of him being an older man spying on his teenage students? Is it justified if the children are more dangerous than they let on? Or is it justified because the kids clearly want to be watched?
With such stellar influences, it’s no surprise that School’s Out ends up shining on its own too, especially when backed up by a brilliant cast. Luana Bajrami is particularly menacing as the verbose and morose Apolline – a worthy adversary for Lafitte’s own compelling performance as Hoffman, who convincingly veers closer and closer to total mental collapse with every passing minute. Bajrami and Lafitte easily carry the film together; their restrained aggression towards each other so palpable that you could cut it with a knife. While the rest of the creepy children perhaps don’t get as much screen time as they should, they nonetheless heighten the film’s undercurrent of unease as Apolline’s willing stooges; so pliant to her strength of will that they would even risk drowning one of their own for her.
There are a few loose ends that School’s Out fails to tie up at the risk of appearing completely gratuitous – namely, the hints at the burgeoning political upheaval in France, the anti-Semitic undercurrent amongst the college students and teachers, and the homoerotic attraction between Hoffman and a fellow teacher, Steve. But relatively speaking, these feel more like small, overlooked details washed away by the relentless tide of the film’s main narrative. Loaded with enough intrigue and suspense to make viewers think themselves into a corner, School’s Out is a film that, when watched, feels like staring into an image of the sun. It won’t blind you, but it will make you think you’re going blind. And sometimes, that’s all that’s needed.