Leading the charge for the Freak Me Out Program Strand at Sydney Film Festival this year is French, Environmental, Fantasy & Sci-Fi, Horror film, School’s Out. Before I delve into the guts of the film, I have to remark on the strength of genre movies coming out of France at the moment that are both insightful and leveraged with deep integrity. This writer has been remarkably affected by the likes of Raw, Revenge, and The Night Eats The World in the last couple of years, that I’m becoming a huge fan of this new-wave of francophile horror. Despite not being an all-out horror, School’s Out is firmly can firmly sit side-by-side with these movies.
In its opening scene, director Sébastien Marnier sets out to deliberately disturb the viewer, by confronting the audience with a seemingly tranquil school classroom setting, only to witness the teacher attempt suicide by throwing himself out of the window. What is most unsettling about this scene is the manner in which some of the students seem unaffected by this traumatic moment, simply staring out of the window at the body of their teacher on the ground below. In this one moment, Marnier sets the tone for the remainder of the film. The audience has a feeling of distrust towards the six unempathetic, yet highly-gifted students, and when we are introduced to the lead protagonist, relief teacher, Pierre Hoffman, he carries our fears and animosity with him throughout the films narrative.
The theme is also spelt out fairly early on in the piece too using the sub-genre, environmental horror at its core, which could very well be a growing trend in this class, much like the underrated, The Marshes, which came out last year. After all, horror is supposed to tap into our greatest fears, and what is more horrifying to humanity at the moment than ourselves and our impact on this world?
The message isn’t rammed down our throats though, more rather, it looms large in the background, ever-present, and a reminder that the danger is all around us if we dare to open our eyes and see. The symbolism isn’t lost whenever Pierre is swimming in a nearby lake with a huge power plant filling the landscape behind him.
What makes this film stand out though, is that it cleverly weaves Kafka’s theory of existentialism into the fold with the notion that each one of us is responsible and free for the actions we take. Should we be bystanders in our own destruction, or hopelessly try to prevent our own undoing? Pierre sows this seed fairly on when he mentions that he is working on a thesis around Kafka, and yet can’t seem to find the momentum to complete what he has started. Kafka was known to explore themes of alienation and isolation in his work, fuelled by anxiety in a world that fuses fantasy with reality; all of which is on display in School’s Out and provides the film with the necessary structure in which to tell Marnier and his screenwriting partner Elise Griffon’s narrative.
The beauty of this movie is that in the way Marnier steers his audience into a particular focus, and like Pierre we become blinded by the this narrow approach that we neglect to look at the bigger picture, and in doing so poses some big questions about our responsibilities.
Whilst not strictly a horror in the fullest sense of the word, Marnier’s movie reflects the horrors that humanity is capable of in this slow-burning movie, that lifts the lid and exposes our damning actions. The performances are particularly strong and effective in School’s Out, and in some cases are quite confronting, which only adds to the strength of the overall storyline. Like Kafka’s most known novel, Die Verwandlung” (“The Metamorphosis“), we must learn to adapt or transform our ways if we are to survive, or ultimately face the consequences.