From the opening scene of the strikingly beautiful Marina Fois leading a sunny summer class of vibrant teens, we know there is going to be trouble. The trouble is the barely concealed sexual chemistry between her character, the teacher Olivia Dejazet, and her brilliant and exceedingly handsome student Antoine (Matthieu Lucci). When the 23rd Rendez-Vous with French Cinema (co-presented by Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance) popped this one on the screen, anything could happen.
Ramping up the tension as we wait for the Isabelle Huppert / Benoît Magimel “Piano Teacher” fireworks to begin, director Laurent Cantet draws us into the slow burn of a cat and mouse standoff. The students seem out of place, taking a summer class in a beach town in the south of France where nude swimming and alcohol fueled pistol practice intersperse with writing a class novel.
The novel is to be a historical noir mystery set in a former boat building hub, like the small city by Marseilles hosting the al fresco schoolroom. The gritty students, sons and daughters of laborers, hardly know why they are there, and they are curious about the motivations of their Parisian teacher. When asked why she is not somewhere else making more money, Olivia stumbles for an answer.
In fact, she is subtly taking advantage of them by mining for ideas while she coaches, while the students take advantage of her for free lessons from a big-name novelist. Beneath the shaky foundation are the sensual tremors of the dry coitus taking place between Olivia and Antoine, and the congealing mirage of the student’s murderous ideas. As the novel forms, so do dangerous plans, not under complete control by either the teacher or the student. Neither knows where the story will end.
The screenplay may touch on recent mass school shootings in the USA (and elsewhere) to juxtapose gunplay, boiling teen libido and adult fecklessness. Or it may simply present a marginal use/abuse of authority in a lion’s den of smart kids who know perfectly well who is using whom. The cinematography is strong; beautiful youths swimming in the crystal clear emerald waters with the huge abandoned shipyard works in the background. As the teacher maneuvers for her next novel, the one she needs to stay alive, the young dance on the grave of the past.
The outward purpose of the class is to give the students a way out of their abandoned industrial home town. As it turns out, the person in charge of that has been set adrift from her own labor. Pretending to be a missionary, she sees she is becoming a vampire. The win-win proposition is becoming less clear, as is the exchange of “honest” physical labor for the ephemeral “labor” of intellectual art.
In the end, the teacher and the audience are given a look inside Antoine’s mind. As scary as that is, it is impossible not to see inside our own minds, and fear that as well.
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