The Lesson is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
God save us from the dumb-smart movie.
What do I mean by that? Well, by way of contrast—on the opposite side of the color-wheel, so to speak—a smart-dumb movie is a joy forever. (Off the top of my head, I'll offer the Coen Brothers' Raising Arizona as an example. It's a live-action slapstick cartoon about fairly stupid people doing very stupid things, but the film itself is absolute genius.)
On the other hand, there are few things more tedious than a dumb-smart movie. Those are the ones that think they're wonderfully erudite and sophisticated and fiendishly clever, but they're not: they're pretentious, and phony, and cringingly dumb in that secondhand-embarrassing way that only someone who thinks they're highly intelligent can be.
I regret to report that The Lesson—written by Alex MacKeith and directed by Alice Troughton—is this most dreaded combination, the dumb-smart movie. It's a movie about characters who are supposed to be smart, who are supposed to be doing and talking about very smart things, and the movie clearly thinks its screenplay is oh-so-very-clever indeed. It's the kind of movie that might even briefly fool you into thinking you're watching something smart, as this one apparently fooled some really good actors into thinking they were signing on to be in something smart.
But the dumb-smart movie always gives itself away, eventually exposing the shallowness of its name-dropping references and desperately over-playing its allegedly clever twists. The Lesson turns out to be nothing more than a pulpy B-movie in literary fancy dress, the cinematic equivalent of two kids in a trench-coat (if the top kid had a fake pencil-thin mustache, a cigarette in a holder, and a monocle).
It's a question I would love to ask Richard E. Grant and (particularly) Julie Delpy, very good actors who try their damnedest to make The Lesson seem like an intelligent literary thriller for grown-ups: "At what point did you first realize you were in a really dumb movie?"
Daryl McCormack (Good Luck to You, Leo Grande) plays Liam, a young literature student and aspiring novelist, who accepts a summer position as a tutor to help get teen-ager Bertie Sinclair (Stephen McMillan) into Oxford. Liam takes the job mostly because it provides him the opportunity to get close to Bertie's father, famous novelist J.M. Sinclair (Grant), Liam's literary idol and thesis subject. Sinclair hasn't written anything in years, we learn—ever since the suicide of his elder son, Felix—but he is supposedly working on a new masterpiece. It is Bertie's mother Hélène (Delpy), an artist and curator, who hires Liam and instructs him in the house rules: stick to the tutoring, don't talk to J.M. about feelings, and never ask him about his work.
We first see The Great Writer being interviewed before a crowd of adoring fans. His go-to bon mot is "Good writers borrow, but great writers steal," and this line is both our first clue to the film's implausibly sinister plot and our first clue that the film has been assembled, Frankenstein-like, from an assortment of disconnected dumb-smart clichés. Sinclair stole this line, of course: it is usually attributed to Picasso, who almost certainly (if he said it at all) stole it from someone else. In a genuinely smart film someone would have the wit to point this out—it does seem to bolster the point, after all—but The Lesson wants to pass it off as an original J.M. Sinclair witticism.
That may sound like a petty complaint, but it is emblematic of The Lesson's shallow and sophomoric relationship to its chosen milieu. Literally every character in the movie is an artist and an intellectual, but The Lesson never makes them convincing, and certainly has nothing to say about them. (It is unclear, in fact, whether anyone involved in making The Lesson ever actually met one.) J.M. Sinclair pontificates constantly—it is his only mode of conversation—but nothing he says ever actually sounds smart, let alone original, let alone like one of the great literary minds of his generation: he's really just kind of a prick. (This is a film that imagines that an "intellectual" family sits down for stiff, tense dinners in which the patriarch forces everyone to listen to Rachmaninoff. "We had Rachmaninoff yesterday," Bertie whines.)
Liam, too, is supposed to be great scholar and budding literary genius, but the film has absolutely no idea what that would look or sound like. (We suspiciously hear not a word of the titular lessons in literary criticism that Liam is giving Bertie, nor of the allegedly brilliant novels on which both he and Sinclair are working. Making any of that sound authentic—let alone impressive—was clearly beyond either MacKeith's interest or his capacity.) In fact, the only way the movie knows to make Liam seem smart or talented is to give him a preternatural (and plot-convenient) ability to regurgitate absolutely anything he has ever read, including entire novels, verbatim. (That's not being smart, that's being Rain Man.)
With our protagonist (Liam) an empty shirt, and the apparent antagonist (J.M.) a scenery-chewing caricature with all the depth of a Scooby Doo villain, it falls on Delpy's Hélène to give the film any complexity. And, bless her, Delpy tries, heroically and futilely. For a while—as Liam and J.M. trade freshman-comp lit talk, mysterious manuscripts, and faux-clever chess moves for the lowest possible stakes—Hélène seems like the only genuinely intriguing character in the film. (I doubt I would be so irritated with The Lesson if it had not so wasted what should have been a rich and juicy part for Delpy.) I won't give away the silly twists of The Lesson's silly plot—though you'll see them coming a mile away–but as each one is revealed it becomes clear that the character of Hélène makes no sense. She's not interesting because she's well-written, but because she's been forced to embody the convoluted and nonsensical notions of a dozen femmes fatale: she's Lady Macbeth by way of Kayser Soze by way of Mrs. Robinson. Delpy is a wonderful actress, but neither she nor anyone else in the film has a single motivation or line of dialogue that feels authentic.
It's one of the marks of a dumb-smart movie that, when you get to the reveal of the final twist, you think, There had to have been a less complicated way to get there. That's because such twists are not motivated by character, or logic, or even a casual relationship to actual human behavior: such preposterous twists exist only to be twists, and only because someone once saw a better movie that had twists in it. But that's how the entirety of The Lesson feels: as if its creators vaguely remember that once, a long time ago, they saw a prestige literary thriller that had smart people in it. Unfortunately for all of us, whatever that movie they saw was—Sleuth? Deathtrap? Swimming Pool?—they didn't even take good notes.