Skirt Day (La journée de la jupe)

France (2008) Dir. Jean-Paul Lilienfeld

Being a teacher must be one of the more thankless professions to undertake, more so in today’s age of political and racial unrest that leads to unprecedented violence in the classroom. In my day, kids were of course unruly but they respected and often feared authority – something which seems no longer exists in today’s schools.

Sonia Bergerac (Isabelle Adjani) teaches French literature at an inner city public school for immigrant kids from various countries. They are unruly, abusive, disrespectful, and often violent to the staff as well as their fellow students. Sonia is taking anti-depressants for the stress and he husband has just left her because he can’t help, leaving Sonia in a fragile mental state.

The biggest troublemaker in the class, Mouss (Yann Ebonge) is being typically disruptive as Sonia tries to get her class to rehearse a Moliere play in the school theatre. A scuffle ensues when Sonia tries to settle the boy and a gun falls out of Mouss’ bag, which he gets aggressive about when Sonia won’t give it back. Finally snapping, Sonia locks the door and holds the class at gunpoint hoping to teach them all a valuable life lesson.

No doubt there are many teachers wished they could pull a stunt like this to get their class to settle down and pay attention, though it is very unlikely to ever actually happen (except maybe in America – you never know). The premise of Skirt Day might appear to be farfetched and more suited to a comedy, but it raises a number of important issues about stress, social and racial integration, and the attendant clash of attitudes.

Ironically, the one thing female French students took from this film relates to the title. One of the demands Sonia makes to the police is the Minister for Education introduces a “skirt day”, one day a year when female teachers are allowed to wear a skirt to school without being made to feel they are offending conservative or religious mindsets. Female students did make such an official request though I don’t believe it was approved.

Part of why Sonia’s colleagues are loathe to rally round her is because she insists on wearing a skirt which upsets the male Muslim students though she refuses to see this as an act of defiance. Others claim Sonia is a racist for not tolerating religious differences, since this is a public school for everyone, and doesn’t believe in bringing religion into the classroom.

Some might see this is as being intolerant but a last minute reveal about Sonia puts this into perspective. In the interim, Sonia holds a mirror up to the various tenets of her now captive class, exposing the hypocrisy of their prejudices and attitudes towards others – such as an Arab boy who calls everything faulty or inconvenient “kike”, claiming it is an opinion but supplanting “kike” with “Arab” is being racist.

As an observer, this might come across as heavy handed in getting the point across but in the context of trying to reason with an uncouth teen such bluntness is arguably required. Writer-director Jean-Paul Lilienfeld appears to have lot to say about this and the other issues raised in this film, though I don’t believe he is being deliberately incendiary, rather he realises he can’t pussy foot around these subjects if he is provoke discussion.

Bullying, racism, sexism, and even rape feature as thorny topics to divide the class, a usual with Mouss at the centre of it all. Being a black Muslim some might see him as an easy target and the worst go to stereotype for the chief antagonist role, though he is not alone in representing these negative traits. The three girls in the group are initially quiet observers to this madness but when Mouss attacks Sonia, one girl, Nawel (Sonia Amori) grabs the gun and takes charge.   

It might be that 91 minutes is not enough to explore everything Lilienfeld had in mind, explaining the episodic nature of their introduction into the story, as if there was an agenda to get through. But it isn’t limited to the classroom either – outside the police are trying to negotiate with Sonia via Chief Labouret (Denis Podalydès) who favours talking over action whilst his trigger happy superior Officer Bechet (Yann Collette) wants to set off the fireworks.

Like with the teachers – the feckless headmaster, whose refusal to act whenever Sonia made a complaint was the catalyst for all of this, does a runner early on – there are egos and backsides to be saved too. The Interior Minister (Nathalie Besançon) is keen to keep details from the press but Sonia is one step ahead of them. It’s all a big mess but as usual, nobody stops to ask “Why?” they just need someone to hang out to dry.

Adjani won an unprecedented fifth César Award for her role as Sonia, marking her return to acting after six years away. Her performance has proved polarising – some people feel she is too erratic in shifting from victim to crazy woman in charge – but I felt it was a convincing and well measured turn, capturing the nervous energy of a woman on edge who finally explodes under pressure.

The younger cast, mostly newcomers at the time, made good accounts for themselves, with many going to to have successful careers, whilst it could be argued the way the police were portrayed with their bickering was comical, Denis Podalydès being too henpecked to be an effective hostage negotiator.

Films like Skirt Day tend to live or die based on how much the audience is willing to let themselves believe. If you can accept the goofy premise is scarily possible in this tense, modern climate you’ll find this to be a thought-provoking but politically sensitive outing; if it sounds stupid then nothing will you convince you take it seriously. Personally, I found it compelling and relatable on a number of issues.