Max Redmond Smith on Sébastien Marnier’s ‘School’s Out’ (2018)
Through its shallow characters and an apprehension to provoke greater moral ambiguity Sébastien Marnier’s School’s Out / L’heure de la sortie (2018) is a limp expression of extremism that elicits little emotional response.
After the inexplicable suicide of a teacher during a lesson, a prestigious French school hires a young substitute teacher (Laurent Lafitte as Pierre, of Elle fame) as cover for their IAC (Intellectually Advanced Children) class. The intellectual precociousness and emotional vacancy of the IAC arouse suspicion in Pierre, particularly the top students within the class who have formed a tightly knit pack: six children who act as group, and within that group a leader, Apolline (Luàna Bajrami), and her co-conspirator, Dimitri (Victor Bonnel). Suspecting that this group may have something to do with their previous teacher’s death, Pierre obsessively investigates the lives of said sextet.
The sextet wander through the local quarry, a Spartan visual contrast to the otherwise obsequious educational institutions, lofty places of worship, dense forests, and throbbing nightlife. The comparison suggests a conscious uncoupling by the sextet from the populated world (even the forest is busy with cyclists and strollers). In the quarry, the sextet is divorced from the world they have begun to loathe. In this subtle formal symbolism, the baron quarry provides both: a primordial haven that offers redemption and forgiveness; and the simultaneous celebration of the world’s end and the cleansing of its impurities. More subtleties of School’s Out lie in inserts of the human body performing normally as it should that against the ideology of the children can be read as failures (close ups of napes sweating; a tampon soaked in blood). This is evidence of an ignorance bred out of intelligence: the children have lost sight of social functioning and emotional intelligence through their precocious intellectual elevation, and are now self-sabotaging (as is School’s Out in its reserved cerebral approach to French Extremism).
It is in this quarry-limbo and further, that the sextet suffocate, punch, kick, and violate one another in tests of mental and physical resilience. In essence, they are exploring the body for the first time, and they are also preparing it for final judgement. After viewing these startling acts from afar, Pierre approaches their imaginary arena, and finds a hidden box filled with numbered videos tapes. Pierre systematically steals these tapes in numerical order, watches them, and returns them. The tapes reveal the sextet’s perspective on the world and their place in it. However, School’s Out is only concerned with Pierre’s perspective, and the opportunity to expand and promote the perspective of the sextet, and produce a moral ambiguity, is missed. The videos are stitched together by: their trips taken together; footage taken from the news; suffering landscapes and flora; and brutalised fauna. The text within the text is the very attraction-repulsion that the children themselves represent, and that Pierre is engrossed with.
Despite this, what is elicited it not quite repulsion but more so, indifference. So although the children in question of School’s Out precariously challenge the limit of the human body—both physically and psychologically—the emotional limit is scarcely exercised, and the only flicker of compassion expressed is in the effort to prevent Pierre’s death from their own joint suicide in the film’s finale—this choice is both terribly underwhelming, and appears a weak effort to exact a flash-shock emotional response from the spectator. But in this late and brief flicker of compassion, what reason does the spectator have to believe that the children have any permanent emotional awareness?
The finale unfortunately provides limp credence for the notion that the sextet possess a compassionate propensity, moreover if one does not care for the children, through not knowing their perspective well, one is divorced from any emotional wrought: the spectator only has the slight arousal of curiosity that School’s Out achieves to keep them interested (where do Pierre’s ethical limits lie? specifically, how much can he watch before intervening?) but this is not enough—the children may challenge themselves but does Marnier challenge the spectator? School’s Out takes a more conservative and cerebral approach to its manifestation of French Extremism, in which case it fails to ask enough questions that assault the mind.
Premiered as part of the BFI London Film Festival.