A substitute teacher goes on an unnerving trip into paranoia and obsession in Sébastien Marnier’s School’s Out, a slow-burn chiller about real-world environmental ruin.
Midway through a lesson, a teacher at a prestigious French school steps out of a top-floor window and falls to his death, while six students watch impassively. Pierre Hoffman (Laurent Lafitte), a gay, weed-smoking PhD student is brought in at his replacement, to a frosty reception. Pierre’s attention soon fixes on the group of six – the smartest kids in the class, and resented for it – who seem resistant to his teaching methods.
As he grows increasingly suspicious, Pierre starts to spy on the kids outside of school hours. He sees them engage in ritualistic survival games, and edit secret DVDs filled with footage of pollution and environmental damage. The stakes ramp up with admirable patience, and we are unsure if we are watching the genesis of a group of eco-terrorists or one man’s descent into madness. It is in this tension, playing these two terrors against each other, the inner and the outer, that the film finds its most effective genre material, right up until an ending that teases anticlimax before delivering a final, resonant beat.
“we are unsure if we are watching the genesis of a group of eco-terrorists or one man’s descent into madness.”
School’s Out is a linear story told in a way that will seem familiar to fans of the ‘psychological horror’ genre. It is, however, complicated – and improved – by an ambiguity in the characters designed to wrong-foot the viewer. The pupils are smart, and morally conscious, and correct about the world’s environmental travesties, but they are also condescending, creepy and brittle. As in real life, their environmentalism is perceived as moral superiority, a perception their behaviour only encourages.
Thematically and, to a limited extent, stylistically, the film occupies similar territory to this year’s brilliant First Reformed, directed by Paul Schrader. First Reformed also sees a figure of ostensible authority (in this case, a priest) circling the outskirts of eco-terrorism, unable to provide answers, or comfort, to those who need it. Both films approach this subject with the nagging sense that it may be too late, that the world is beyond saving and so, therefore, are we. It’s not even a case of nihilism, but rather the idea that if we choose to engage with the reality of mankind’s mechanised ruin of the environment, the only response is despair – and madness.
School’s Out will not be seen by as many people as (the already under-seen) First Reformed, but it does a similarly deft job of confronting the grim, ignored truth of the world. For all of horror, the tense synthesiser music, its flickering lights and creepy stares, School’s Out knows the deepest fears lie in the real world, the terrors in broad daylight from which everyone turns away.
School’s Out is showing at the BFI London Film Festival 2018. You can purchase tickets here.
Image: LAURENT CHAMPOUSSIN