Friday, January 21, 2011

SKIRT DAY (La Journee de la Jupe, 2009)

Isabelle Adjani has won a pile of awards for her work in Jean-Paul Lilienfeld's rabble-rousing schoolroom drama, her first film after a five-year absence from the screen. Her Cesar award gave her the record for the most such wins by a French actress. Thinking the film over, I have to attribute the praise to some sense that Adjani was making a comeback, or to some imperative to affirm the militantly secularist message of Lilienfeld's really rather familiar story.

The setting is the College Maxim Gorky, but we've seen the place before in American films from The Blackboard Jungle forward; Class of 1984 would make for a better analogy. Adjani is Sonia Bergerac, a theater teacher near the end of her tether. Her students are the dregs of the banlieue, mostly Muslims if in name only or as a matter of ethnic pride. The boys are thugs, except for Mme. Bergerac's pet, Mehmet; the girls are barely more civilized. They're as irreverent or apathetic as you'd expect, heckling anyone who takes the stage to perform the scenes they were supposed to have memorized from Moliere's Bourgeois Gentleman. "Skirt Day" means that, against the advice of her peers, Sonia is wearing a skirt (not to mention high-heeled boots) to class, which is asking for trouble from her Muslim charges. She clearly feels threatened by them but is determined not to appear intimidated, but her commands carry little authority, just as her subject carries little apparent relevance for the sweathogs' miserable lives.

Hearing the sounds of a scuffle in the back of the classroom, Sonia interrupts a fight over a duffel bag. In the tug of war a gun pops out of the bag. As luck has it, Sonia grabs the weapon before either of the boys, who try to talk her into giving it back. In her confusion she ends up winging the worst of the kids, Mouss, in the leg. A bunch of kids flee, but she locks a handful of stragglers in the room with her, now determined to teach them all a lesson in more than one sense.

Reached via cellphone by the police, Sonia convinces them that she's a hostage of Mouss. Meanwhile, she drills her charges into memorizing Moliere's real name. When Mouss proves recalcitrant despite his wound, Sonia head butts him, then goes into a victory dance chanting the name of Zinedine Zidan, the soccer star who earned infamy by head-butting an opponent in the 2006 World Cup final. She mocks the kids' trash culture by making them vote, reality TV style, to determine who'll be the first to, um, leave the room. She shows herself a militant advocate of French laicite, forcing one Muslim kid to take off his skullcap and reminding another that the laws against ethnic slurs cover anti-Semitism as well. On the other side, her unsympathetic fellow teachers (she seem to have only one friend on the faculty) are calling her a crazy racist after a spy camera finally reveals that she's the one with the gun and the power.

On Skirt Day we dance! Isabelle Adjani celebrates a small victory.

As Sonia bargains with a RAID negotiator -- one of her demands is a national Skirt Day in public schools -- power changes hands a few times inside the classroom. Mouss plays possum at one point so he can attack her, but the gun ends up in the hands of Nawel, an Algerian girl with an agenda of her own: to lambaste the stupid boys who think they know Islam and to expose some of them as participants in the gang rape of another student. Ultimately, Nawel gives the gun back to Nadia after her moment in the spotlight, but the twists keep on coming as we wonder whether everyone will walk out of the room alive....

Skirt Day is all about female empowerment; a gun for every girl!

La Journee de la Jupe isn't even 90 minutes long, but it grows tiresome well before the end. It becomes apparent in time that Sonia Bergerac is less a character than a platform for Lilienfeld's editorializing and Adjani's tirades. The actress's role is less a performance than a succession of turns and stunts. We learn that she has a troubled marriage, but it hardly seems relevant to her meltdown in the classroom. Lilienfeld's cavalier attitude toward character and motivation is best demonstrated by the big ironic revelation, late in the film, that Sonia is herself a Muslim, or at least of Muslim parentage (Adjani herself is half-Algerian). There's no point to this reveal except to make a debating point of some kind. Apparently Sonia practised what she now preaches, assimilating into and embracing French culture. Does that make her a heroine, or even a martyr? It's hard to answer since Lilienfeld leaves us wondering whether she was just plain crazy. Is there a point to that? Sonia's character is left so sketchy that it's hard to answer, and that's one reason why it's hard to like this film. Another reason is the pointless character development of the negotiator (Denis Podalydes) who's torn between his police work and maintaining his relationships at home, yet must strive to resolve the matter peacefully before a more militant officer takes over. Lilienfiled should note that having characters refer to the movie The Negotiator does not make his situations any less cliched. Little seems original or even real here. The kids are barely one-dimensional. The film doesn't have scenes; it has statements, though Adjani is encouraged to make a scene at every opportunity.

I accuse myself sometimes of having different standards for foreign and domestic films. I know that I tend to give the foreign stuff extra credit for exoticism, virtual-tourism or time-machine appeal, and so on. These things often enhance a foreign film's entertainment value aside from narrative merit. I bring this up now to warn you that if I say that a foreign film like Skirt Day is bad, it may well be really bad for other viewers.

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