There is a lot to like about the ‘intellectually advanced’ ninth-graders in Sébastien Marnier’s film L’heure de la sortie (2018): the aloofness from their peers, their sociopathic behaviour, the sour faces pulled after their Gen X teacher describes their end-of-the-world nihilism as romantic bullshit, their Patti Smith songs, their short films documenting the atrocities of a world they want no part of. But it’s leader Apolline’s oral report which really drops the bombshell. She quotes from J.G. Ballard’s The Drought—a presumably far-off-the-recommended-reading-list text which diagnoses a mass psychosis caused by social and environmental collapse:
I’ll finish with an excerpt from J.G. Ballard’s ‘Drought.’ On the shores turned into sand and salt dunes, we tear from the sea a few puddles, seaweed, and fish to barter. In the empty sky there is only windswept dust. The obsession with water is the only reason to exist. It’s become the cause of a dark, cold maleficence.
We see Apolline’s report in one of those end-of-days videos, spliced with footage of industrialised animal slaughter. It is filmed surreptitiously by another student, and pans from Apolline to the others, to find a bored and submissive teacher playing with his phone, numb to this maleficence which the children feel so intensely. Ok Boomer.
The John Carpenter-throwback soundtrack by Zombie Zombie makes the connection to Children of the Corn irresistible, while setting the dial to off kilter from the outset. But that connection would underestimate these children, and risks seeing the film as a genre piece and/or the expression of one generations fear of those who follow (it is both and neither of these things). The students are more surrogates or avatars than monsters, and their ‘he who walks behind the rows’ is a far more sinister proposition than some Nebraskan fertility spirit. The film is more reminiscent of the ways artist Marianna Simnett conjures/marshals children and the psychology of children as form and subject in her equally unsettling video works as morality tales (currently on show at Brisbane’s IMA, and beautifully accompanied by a horror movie marathon: Carrie, Nosferatu, Frankenstein, and Bedevil).