The Bulgarian melodrama The Lesson has a premise so similar to the Dardennes brothers’ Two Days, One Night that it could almost be a sequel. Margita Gosheva plays Nadezhda, a strict middle-school English teacher in financial trouble after her husband Mladen (Ivan Barnev) enters a short-sighted business scheme that leaves them in danger of losing their house. Given just a couple of days to find a fix—either by coming up with the money Mladen owes, or by getting a relative to buy the house at auction—Nade goes to see everyone she can think of who might be able to help. As the situation gets more desperate, The Lesson’s first-time writer-director team of Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov crank up the tension by moving in closer and closer on Nade’s face and the back of her head, in shaky Dardennes-style follow-shots.
But The Lesson has plenty of its own strengths and weaknesses, which make it more than just a Dardennes-derived bit of social realism. On the downside, it’s a slow starter, taking nearly half an hour before the drama really kicks in. The early scenes are more about defining what a normal day for Nade was like before everything went haywire; but that first act is so sedate that it makes the more nail-biting action of the last two-thirds feel like an entirely different movie.
Once Nade’s problems start piling up, Grozeva and Valchanov sometimes seem more interested in making points about how the system is stacked against the little guy than they are in letting the story develop organically. Nade and Mladen are flummoxed by banks that advertise fixed interest rates and then bury unfavorable terms in their contracts. At one point, an important transaction is at risk because Nade doesn’t have enough cash on hand to cover what amounts to a one-dollar transfer fee. When she asks her upper-class father for help, he hesitates, because he’s got all of his money tied up in a project he’s undertaken for his young trophy wife. (She’s the kind of vapid non-entity who says things like, “Your negative energy has blocked my chakras!”) There’s too much heavy-handedness in The Lesson’s vision of a society unraveling due to callous bureaucracy and materialism.
But while the plot relies too much on generalities, the film as a whole thrives on specifics. Grozeva and Valchanov illustrate the longstanding tensions between Nade and Mladen by having her lean in for a kiss, which he backs away from because he assumes she’s sniffing his breath to see whether he’s been drinking. The Lesson also highlights the grind of Nade’s everyday life by showing her spending her nights behind a stack of homework, and her days lecturing students who barely pay attention. The Kafka-esque nightmarishness of The Lesson pushes too far too often, but the movie is gripping from moment to moment, as Nade races to beat the clock with a car that’s sputtering, or as she picks through a public fountain to get the last few pennies she needs. Grozeva and Valchanov also make some subtle but effective framing choices, like leaving the a loan shark’s face offscreen for the first half of one tense scene, or having Nade get dressed for an important day while looking into a mirror, where her head is obscured by a picture of her mother.
In the end, The Lesson works best as a depiction of one woman’s mounting outrage. In the film’s opening shot, Nade is holding her class accountable for one student’s stolen money. For the next 100 minutes, she stubbornly continues to believe that people can be reasonable, and the world can be just. “I want to settle things like normal people,” she pleads to her creditors. Grozeva and Valchanov are on their strongest ground when they approach Nade’s crisis with the same down-to-earth sense of right and wrong.