x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

La Journée de la Jupe (Skirt Day)

Jean-Paul Lilienfeld's chaotic and compelling school drama targets France's social issues.

The issues of diversity and immigration continue to be pressing ones in France. Witness President Sarkozy's most recent comments about the burqa. Within the French cultural and media sphere, politicians have been asking for help to address these issues for some time. Following the urban riots of October and November 2005, sparked after the death of two teenagers in a deprived Parisian suburb, the then-president, Jaques Chirac, called for the media to properly reflect the country's ethnic make-up to calm the situation. He was backed by a French newspaper poll in which 79 per cent of respondents agreed with his statement that "the media must better reflect the French reality of today".

La Journée de la Jupe, or Skirt Day, is one of the obvious replies to these efforts. Isabelle Adjani stars as Sonia Bergerac, an exhausted literature teacher at a French school (we don't know where) who arrives one morning to give a class on Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Trouble is signalled from the start. She has to break up a fight between two girls before even entering the classroom. "Madame, you're looking fine," jokes one of the teenage boys, eyeing her legs. "I so wanna marry you," says another. "Why are you treating me like savages?" she replies. "Cause I'm black," Mouss, the apparent leader of the pack, fires back to laughs from his fellow students, the majority of whom are North African immigrants.

Inside the classroom, the situation is chaotic. Nobody will recite Molière and the students joke and swear among themselves. "Shut up!" Bergerac screams to little effect, her eyes shining with anger. She moves to break up a tussle between Mouss and another boy, who have started fighting over a bag. Bergerac snatches the bag. Mouss backs her into a corner. "Give it back or I'll scalp you," he threatens her. In the fracas, a gun drops out. Bergerac picks it up and accidentally discharges it when threatened by Mouss. He gets a bullet in the leg.

But Bergerac has the gun and so finally has respect from the surprised students. The soundproof doors of the theatre are padlocked shut. She sits them down and spouts off facts about Molière. Meanwhile, the few students who escaped the classroom when the gun went off alert the authorities to the bizarre hostage situation. A SWAT team is assembled, news cameras start arriving outside, as do anxious parents. Bergerac's husband appears, too, screaming that his wife had complained to the principal about the students "100 times" and he had done nothing.

At 87 minutes, Skirt Day is a short film, so the pace is frantic and the spectrum of issues covered is broad - from religious differences among the students, to racism, sexism, the ignorance of parents and the tyranny of political correctness. Adjani is exceptional throughout. The film marks her return to the cinema screen after a six-year absence. She makes the portrayal of a crazed, gun-toting teacher utterly plausible, something of a challenge in a film that stretches credibility like this. Strong, too, are performances from the students, most notably Sonia Amori as Nawel, who at one point snatches the gun and proves she has her own agenda with her male peers.

There is really only one gripe, which is that the director, Jean-Paul Lilienfeld, perhaps tries to squeeze in too many subplots. Labouret the negotiator has marriage problems; it emerges that Bergerac has a troubled relationship with her parents; there has been an assault among the students. In one sense, it all adds to the film's feeling of chaos, but there is a fine line between chaos and needless confusion and, at points, Skirt Day veers into the latter. Still, it's not only a nuanced examination of power but a serious and gripping attempt to tackle the volatility of French society. That alone makes it commendable.