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PARIS (Reuters) - Isabelle Adjani plays a teacher struggling to control a mutinous class of teenagers in a new film, being shown at the Berlin Film Festival, that takes one of French cinema's most celebrated beauties to a rundown school.
"La journee de la jupe" (Skirt Day) deals with the tensions over immigration, education and race that have haunted France since the 2005 riots that blew up in the shadow of the grim towerblocks that ring many French cities.
"I didn't think about it all. I accepted immediately," Adjani, whose father was Algerian and who has often spoken out on issues such as immigration, told Reuters in an interview.
The teenagers, mostly children of Arab or black immigrants, treat her awkward character Sonia with contempt and insolence, abuse each other and shout down her helpless attempts to teach them Moliere.
The harassed and dowdy Sonia, far removed from Adjani's ethereal image in roles such as "Camille Claudel" or "La reine Margot," is mocked as a "fat cow" and worse by her adolescent tormentors but ends up spitting abuse right back.
"I was astonished by its politically incorrect audacity," Adjani said of the script that director Jean-Paul Lilienfeld sent her and of the central image of a skirt as a symbol of a woman's freedom to wear what she wanted, free of bullying.
"I thought it was outrageous in a way, very daring and original," she said.
The main drama is produced when a gun is found in a boy's bag, a shot is fired accidentally and Sonia cracks up, taking her own class hostage and setting the scene for a series of fiery exchanges on race, religion and the abuse of women.
The film, shot on a low budget, was originally made for television before favorable early reaction helped it gain cinema release and Adjani said the filming was quick and direct.
"I told myself, 'I have to come into this like their teacher'," she said of working with a teenage cast who called her "Madame" in between their onscreen shouting matches.
"There has to be no ambiguity. They have to regard me like the education authorities."
Similar issues formed the basis for Laurent Cantet's 2008 film "The Class," winner of the Palme d'Or award at Cannes and now in the running for an Oscar but the tone of "Skirt Day" is darker and more brutal.
"All the excuses are there but at a certain point, violence is inexcusable," Adjani said, adding that the issues in the film went beyond the unforgiving world of the poor Paris suburbs.
"The thing that strikes me about teenagers today is this thing about demanding respect," she said. "You see it in both disadvantaged social classes and among the well-off."
"I think we have to get back the value of behavior that is consistent with being taught, that's to say, respecting teachers, listening and not always expecting your opinion to take precedence," she said.
Adjani said she hoped the film would spark debate but also said she was skeptical of political pronouncements by actors, whose main job was arousing emotion.
"I'm very suspicious of that on a political and social level," she said. "It annoys me that people look to us first. They should look to us afterwards."
Editing by Paul Casciato