THE LESSON (Izlaiduma gads) C
Latvia Russia (108 mi) 2014 d: Andris Gauja
Writer, director, producer, and musical composer, Andris Gauja has attempted to do it all in his first feature film, where Latvian films are seen all too rarely at film festivals. While originally intended as a documentary shooting a group of graduating high school seniors, eventually the schools kicked them out telling them they couldn’t shoot there any more, apparently due to the behavior of the kids, as it was perceived as portraying Latvians in a poor light. Gauja then broadened his concept into a feature film, becoming a love story on the run. Much of what is shown onscreen is utterly preposterous, where by all accounts, the initial instincts of the schools do seem well founded, as this does present Latvia in an extremely negative manner, where its jaded citizens are used to living in such a corrupt and deteriorating society that moral laws no longer apply, where there is no longer any recognizable concept of right and wrong. Latvia was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany during WWII, then after the war re-occupied by the Soviets for the next 50 years until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, where as a consequence, many Russians still live in Latvia along with Estonians, both neighboring nations, each comprising about 25% of the population. Shot in the Latvian city of Riga, the film opens with an unpleasant break-up, where young and attractive Zane, Inga Alsina-Lasmane, is forced to rebuild her life, but opens the new school year as the Russian instructor, but also the mentor to an unruly group of graduating seniors. This concept of a mentor is confusing to many, as it’s a position that doesn’t exist elsewhere, but their role is someone nearer the age of the students than other teachers who acts as an intermediary should authority issues or communication conflicts arise. What’s perhaps most surprising is how mentors act outside the dictates of school guidelines, where they need to be liked and appreciated by the students, so they often invite them into their homes for parties and act as a party planner for their active social lives.
On her first day, only a handful of kids show up for class, as the rest are loitering around outside smoking and making fun of those who actually attend class. To combat this indifference, Zane organizes a beach field trip/party that turns into a drunken all-night affair with no adult supervision whatsoever, swimming naked in the sea, smoking and drinking whatever they want, where it obviously spirals out of control. Despite complaints from other teachers and several parents afterwards, Zane is apparently pleased with herself as she’s drawn the students back into her class. Probing into the personal life of one of her troubled students, she actually invites one of the girls, Inta (Ieva Apine), to come live with her, while at the same time, after her initial refusal, she begins having an affair with one of the students, Max (Marcis Klatenbergs), a guy who barely even shows up for class, whose father is a Russian gangster affiliated with the mafia. This is a film where actions seem to have little or no consequences, as Inta’s parents and family never come looking for her, while Max’s parents obviously don’t give a damn either. Soon, with his father’s money, Max is enticing Zane with a romantic weekend to Paris, dining in fancy restaurants, eventually landing in bed, taking naked pictures of each other, where this may as well be the realization of a male fantasy bearing little to no relation to reality. One wonders how this young woman could be so blind as to think none of this would matter, or that the photos wouldn’t find their way onto the Internet, where she’s jeopardizing her entire career over a relatively undistinguished son of a gangster, who without his daddy’s money wouldn’t attract anyone’s interest. Making matters worse, as if it wasn’t bad enough the first time, Zane organizes another drunken party at her own home, again without any adult supervision, and again all hell breaks out as the kids are free to do whatever they want.
None of the kids are professional actors and it shows, as they play stereotypes of unruly, disaffected kids, often seen smoking and turning their video cameras on in the classroom, sulking much of the time, showing no hope or any prospects for the future, never spending any time doing homework, never taking any tests, where it’s just not like any school anyone ever attended. Zane is never seen actually teaching the class, but instead makes herself busy as their social planner. When other teachers get wind of what’s going on, she tells them to mind their own business, as she’s too busy playing the popular girl in school, where she’s completely oblivious that any of her actions will have negative ramifications. Her deluded state of mind makes for uncomfortable cinema, where the unseen horror is how the film plays into the audience’s expectations, knowing nothing good could come of this, where you wait for the bombs to explode. It’s all a bit amateurish, where there’s a reason kids aren’t the teachers in classrooms, as Zane simply shows no aptitude for professionalism, where she’s something of a disgrace to the teaching profession, where in many societies she’d be locked up on morals charges. Making matters worse, there’s little to no chemistry between any of the characters, including the smitten couple, which only makes this more uncomfortable, as it’s an overly contrived picture of a nation, once the Soviets left, with no moral authority. It’s a strange and unusual portrayal of an empty society, wildly uneven throughout, yet the performance of Inga Alsina-Lasmane is a bit captivating, where the premise is a train wreck waiting to happen with the audience taking on the role of interested onlookers. The crash is something unexpected, as love on the run never looked more bleak, where Russia turns into an industrial wasteland without a hint of hospitality, as if they entered into a colorless dead zone that only exists in sci-fi movies. Peppering the film with many pop songs, some written by the director, the film retains a bleak youthful view of crushed hopes and a nonexistent future, supposedly broken before any of these kids arrived, but they are under no illusions about their ability to fix anything.