Monsieur Lazhar

Monsieur Lazhar


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Dealing with the suicide of someone very close to you is always traumatic – how much more so if you’re a pre-teen school pupil and the person who took their own life was your teacher?

That’s the premise of Falardeau’s subtle and warm, yet powerful film - nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar and further proof of a rich vein of talent emerging in Francophone Canadian cinema.

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It opens with the discovery of the teacher’s body, hanging from the rafters of her classroom, by Simon (Émilien Néron) as he collects the cartons for the milk break. The juxtaposition of the banal details of classroom life with the horror on the boy’s face set the template for an exploration of the most universal human concerns – how to maintain humour, sanity and hope in a world where tragedy can strike at any moment – in a familiar, everyday setting.

Naturally, pupils and staff are in a state of shock, but they also have to get on with the day-to-day business of the school, which includes finding a replacement teacher. Enter Monsieur Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian immigrant with apparently impeccable credentials and a willingness to engage with the kids and their trauma full on.

His methods are very different to those of his predecessor, but his manner – neither embarrassingly ‘right-on’ or rigidly disciplinarian – gradually wins his charges over, as does his willingness to treat them as young adults and not shy away from discussing the suicide. His status as an ‘outsider’ in Canadian society also chimes with his culturally polyglot class.

But it leads to some conflicts with his colleagues, particularly when he refuses to simply mouth sympathetic platitudes about his predecessor, instead questioning why a teacher would want to end their life in a manner seemingly guaranteed to traumatise their pupils.

As the film progresses, it becomes clear that dark undercurrents run through the apparently placid and PC school environment, with Simon and Alice (Sophie Nélisse), his one-time best friend who’s now inexplicably angry with him, particularly affected. Lazhar tries to help them bring their feelings out into the open, and begins a diffident relationship with fellow-teacher Claire (Brigitte Poupart). But his own tragic past is about to impact on his life, and that of the school...

Falardeau handles all this with a very sure touch, conjuring vivid images from the wintry Montreal landscape and perfectly capturing the hermetic atmosphere of school life, where both pupils and staff have a day-to-day intimacy which is uniquely intense. The climax, like the rest of the film, is subtle but heartfelt, lingering long in the memory.

This isn’t just a worthy gloomfest, however – Falardeau the writer finds plenty of scope for humour in the sometimes ludicrous routines and personality clashes of classroom life, and the performances are peerless.

Fellag (a veteran of French and Algerian cinema for almost 30 years) brings a quiet, humble dignity but also a subtle wit and simple strength of character to a role that transcends the usual ‘inspirational teacher’ stereotypes. His grown-up colleagues are equally solid, though special praise must go to the children; Nélisse and Néron are the standouts but the whole ensemble are scarily precocious and utterly believable as a mixed bunch of ordinary kids forced to deal with a trauma that shouldn’t be inflicted upon anyone.

Occasionally the focus on character and atmosphere means a loss of dramatic momentum and a couple of plot developments don’t quite stand up to scrutiny. But for the most part this is very superior stuff, highly recommended. It’ll be intriguing to see what direction Falardeau – and French-Canadian cinema as a whole – takes next.

Reviewed on: 09 May 2012
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Monsieur Lazhar packshot
An Algerian teacher helps the class of a Montreal grade school cope with the aftermath of a tragedy.
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Director: Philippe Falardeau

Writer: Philippe Falardeau

Starring: Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron, Danielle Proulx, Brigitte Poupart

Year: 2011

Runtime: 94 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: Canada


Sundance 2012

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