Skirt Day is the kind of film that's rarely seen in the states, one that takes on a very, very contentious social issue of the day and tosses it around and stares it right in the face, but still doesn't descend to stereotypes and clichés. This is one French film that doesn't care who it offends, and has great help from its start Isabelle Adjani, who hasn't exactly shied away from controversial material in the past.
Adjani plays Ms. Bergerac, a teacher of French literature in an inner city school, who really only wants to talk about Moliere without being intimidated, threatened and mocked by her students. Many of those students are the children of Muslim immigrants, and they rough house and disrespect their teacher with impunity. They are insolent and aggressive, and every rule they ignore seems to have a religious justification. Bergerac has no luck when she goes to feckless principal Cauvin (Jackie Berroyer). The only result of her complaints is a shrug of the shoulders from her boss and accusations of racism from some of her fellow teachers. Bergerac isn't a strident advocate of secularism, she's a fragile and harried woman on the brink, who throws up every day before school because she's so afraid of her students.
Things change one day, when she comes across two students, Mouss and Sebastien (Yann Ebonge and Kevin Azais), arguing over a bag. When she confiscates it, a handgun falls out. She picks it up, and when the two try to take it back from her, complete with threats of retaliatory rape, it goes off, wounding Mouss in the leg. Many of the students flee, but several are trapped in the classroom with their teacher, who it seems has finally snapped. She holds them at gunpoint and continues to lecture on Moliere as the swat team is called and the school locked down. Negotiator Labouret (Denis Podalydes), who has family troubles of his own, is called in to try to resolve the situation, along with a high government minister and a lot of men with large guns. It takes a while for them to figure out that it's Bergerac holding the hostages, not one of the students. When she's found out, she makes a few odd demands. She wants a news crew, dressed only in their underwear, come in to interview her. And she wants a national holiday, to be called Skirt Day, in which all girls are invited to wear skirts to school. Cauvin has repeatedly asked her not to wear skirts herself. Apparently, it offends the Muslim students, and he wants more than anything to avoid controversy. Bergerac wants it declared that a girl can wear a skirt and not be a whore. These aren't your usual demands, but she's not your usual hostage taker.
The point of Skirt Day isn't so much the hostage negotiation aspect, or the thrilling moments, though there are a few. It's not really even the political statement, though that seems pretty obvious as well. It's the interaction between these excluded and nihilistic kids and their close to deranged teacher, and how they both change considerably over the course of the film. These are no cardboard cutouts or ciphers. These are real people the viewer can relate to, even if we don't approve of their actions. Their dynamic shifts several times. First, it's the students exerting unofficial but brutally effective power over their teacher, then it's the reverse as she takes them hostage, and then, things change. Bergerac first gets a few of the girls on her side, especially Nawel (Sonja Amori), and helps them to come to grips with a sexual assault that one of them suffered, which was videoed by Mouss. Then a couple of the boys begin to come to respect their teacher. At the last, Bergerac makes a rather significant sacrifice to protect one of them. Deep down, she loves these kids, and wants them to succeed, and hates watching them destroy themselves every day even more than she hates the way they treat her.
Skirt Day is an opinionated film, and a political film, but it doesn't deal in broad strokes and caricatures. It's funny at times, and bittersweet, and surprising, and tense. The performances are all very good, but Adjani's is astounding. She embodies the stressed out, half crazy, yet still compassionate and principled school teacher. A false note is not to be seen, nor an unbelievable moment. (Adjani won several awards for the performance, including a Cesar.) She is the one that really makes the film pop, and keeps it grounded in reality. A lesser actor would have drug it down into parody, and Skirt Day is much more than that. This film is a punch in the gut, but an exciting one. Highly recommended.