School’s Out

(Sébastien Marnier, France, 2018)

BY LAURA KERN | October 8, 2023

Sébastien Marnier’s second feature may be cursed with a generic English title, but the film immediately dispels any semblance of the ordinary with one of the most attention-grabbing opening scenes in recent memory. A classroom of ninth graders sit engaged in their work as their clearly preoccupied teacher stands by an open window, pulls up a chair, and belly flops to the pavement below. His students look appropriately horrified, yet we quickly wonder what would drive a teacher to do something so extreme. Are these young teens innocents, soon to suffer unfair trauma from what they have witnessed, or have we entered evil-children territory, where they might be responsible for his actions?

While their teacher lies in a coma, Mr. Hoffman (Laurent Lafitte) steps in, and, as if being a substitute isn’t hard enough, he is tasked with fielding the repercussions of the shocking occurrence and contending with a group of hyperintelligent, cunning students, all the while plagued by an oppressive heat wave. Half of the 12 classmates are tightly bonded, their superior attitudes terribly off-putting and their cold indifference more than a little unsettling. The film’s American poster art depicting glowing-eyed children would have you believe they’re devilish, though it’s not immediately clear what they’re up to.

What is clear is that Lafitte is an absolute star. In simpler, more carefree times, his Mr. Hoffman would be crush-worthy for any student with even the slightest capacity for emotion. He’s smart, concerned, comforting, resolute, and gorgeous like no other substitute teacher, but here he’s received only with scorn. Although he, and the film, have Kafka on the brain—the writer is the subject of Mr. Hoffman’s thesis-in-progress—the substitute seems to be the most grounded of all the slightly-off-kilter teachers who surround him, but his calm is put to the test. He begins following the six-student clique outside of school and witnesses some baffling and violent ritualistic behavior; meanwhile, he is tormented by a series of mysterious phone calls.

Marnier escalates his film’s dread to a conclusion rivaling that of Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (1977), evoking the enormity of the situation modern societies face, in terms of environmental and technological threats, and the increasingly alienating world for young people especially. Marnier is a master filmmaker, one of the most exciting working today, and he crafts this sense of hopelessness with quiet insistency, aided by Romain Carcanade’s stellar cinematography and electropop duo Zombie Zombie’s mesmerizing score. Yet School’s Out has somehow never had a proper U.S. theatrical release, and the writer-director’s first thriller, Faultless (2016), is currently impossible to find. (His latest wicked treat, The Origin of Evil, is in theaters now.) But finally streaming five years after its premiere, School’s Out is perhaps even timelier with the state of the world not exactly improving, and schools becoming less and less of a safe space. Evil children are not so much the problem as is a generally evil world—and that’s true horror. School’s Out is a film of many layers, but one that’s fascinating on the surface alone. 🩸

Photos by Laurent Champoussin, courtesy of Avenue B Productions

is a writer, editor, and horror programmer based in New York. She is the editor of Bloodvine and her writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Film Comment, and Rolling Stone.

TWITTER: @killerkern

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