As confusingy placed in Cannes as Ruben Östlund's Force Majeure is the “Special Screening” of Israeli director Nadav Lapid's The Kindergarten Teacher, his followup to 2011's Jury Prize winner at Locarno, Policeman. Confusing because here too is a strange and provocative film made with refreshing clarity, and yet it languishes as an aside of an aside of the Festival de Cannes. Regardless, on to the film.
The Kindergarten Teacher takes a Sundance/Euro-festival premise and applies what could only be described as sensible direction to it. A kindergarten teacher who is an amateur poet discovers that a 5-year old boy in her class is extemporaneously inspired to utter absolutely beautiful, completely adult poetry. In wonder, she tries to foster his talent in the face of, as she describes it, a world that has no use for poetry. She tries out his poems in an amateur poetry workshop as her own, and attempts to get the boy's distant father to appreciate a talent she compares to a young Mozart.
From here the movie could most likely be one of two things: a heartwarming tale of the woman's guidance of this preternaturally creative child (Sundance version) or the chilling tale of a woman's exploitation of that child (Euro festival version). But no, Lapid walks a tender tightrope that is a subtle, very unusual middle course: moving and disturbing. His secret weapon isn't the boy, whose apathetic face refuses to show how much or little he cares for his teacher, but rather Sarit Larry, who plays the teacher. Long married and a mother of two grown children, the teacher seems relatively satisfied, and in her work and in close-ups of her smiling eyes of incredible depth she radiates the ideal school teacher's pleasure in and appreciation of children. And yet Lapid writes and directs her behavior around the boy in a distinctly off manner, tainted with small amounts of sadistic lecturing, casual lies, and other subtle signals that suggest an unsteady inner life.
The sense of the uncanny creeps ever closer to the relationship in Jonathan Glazer's dead-husband-returned-as-child chamber drama Birth, but replaces that film's hermetic, ghost-story atmospherics with a more visually liberated but tenuous world that in very small ways seems desperate for the teacher to pull poems out of her child. It's not that her assertions that the boy's aura might be spoiled by an unfriendly world are not true, but rather that her soft, vaguely psychotic behavior itself seems a subtle but potent expression of someone who's lived a supposedly successful, stable and happy life and has emerged from it in some deep way disturbed. One only realized through its confrontation with uncanny beauty. And that this nascent talent for poetry might be a passway or solution to something greater, squashed or forgotten or repressed in herself and in society.
Above all, it this odd sensibility of The Kindergarten Teacher which strikes such a cord. It connects it to a certain strain of bizarre films from the Levant, such as those by Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari, an off-kilter, unexpectedly confrontational cinema. Sarit Larry's character, despite nominally regular and buttoned down in her job and life, would be well at home in Lanthimos's Alps and Tsangari's Attenberg, and indeed a cathartic dance sequence which introduces the film's final act could be straight out of either of those films. This gets closer to some of the film's (as well as Policeman's) unresolved style choices, primarily point of view—or nearly so—shots from the child, from the teacher, from, weirdly, the film itself, as if the film is reinforcing that it, too, takes a point of view, just a poem does, that a film is a poem, perhaps a naive poem, and one struggling in the world for an audience. Yet these scenes, odd as they are, serve further to make sure one isn't taking the film on simple levels of sentimentality or perversion. Rather, they are combined and thereby unsimplified. The quiet sentimental perversity of the film finds something human so worth nurturing that the desire to nurture that beauty must twist itself into something increasingly ugly. But poetic.