Monsieur Lazhar Reviews
A gentle film with an edge, Monsieur Lazhar features strong performances by Mohamed Fellag and his young class. There are many scenes that seem aimless until they're considered in the scope of the larger story.
As a whole, the film is part of the teacher-as-hero genre, and while its anti-intellectualism is confined to the premise that a man with no training can succeed, Monsieur Lazhar is a nurturing love educator, thrown into an emotionally charged classroom with grief-demons of his own. Its thesis -- that there are times when educators are called on to be caring parental figures -- is ludicrous in reality, but I found it effective because of Fellag's soulful performance.
I think the conflict is never fully resolved, which is a common complaint I have with French-language films. I think Lazhar should have had to expose his damage; these kids' emotional lives are on display for Lazhar, and it seemed logical that Lazhar would have to do likewise. The fable bit was an attempt, but the writing on this fable didn't go far enough.
Overall, this is a strong film in a problematic genre.
It's what you'd expect from a traditional French-language film: that is, the illusion of depth more than actual depth. French-speaking filmmakers of the bourgeois variety are masters of pretending to be deep. It's amazing the number of people around the world who fall for it. (Witness the Oscar nomination.)
It's not awful by any means. The subject matter has potential. But it's directed in such a flaccid way that the film just sort of lies there.
A man approaching age 60 mysteriously appears in a town in suburban Montreal and applies for a job as a French teacher. He is from Algeria but remains vague about the details. Gradually we learn that he is seeking asylum in Canada and has experienced terrible tragedies in his native country.
Parallels are drawn between his tragedies and those in the charming bourgeois town in which he now lives. I won't reveal all the details, but these parallels are interesting.
The problem is that writer/director Philippe Falardeau, who has not commanded international attention until now, directs in such a warm, fuzzy way that he softens everything to a warm mush. With a tougher director, "Monsieur Lazhar" could have been quite something.
A stand-out weakness on Falardeau's part is his direction of child actors. Much of the story focuses on the children in Mr. Lazhar's suburban class. In almost every scene, the children are directed so poorly that every word out of their mouths sounds fake. Time after time, the children look like 10-year-olds trying to mimic adults. At times it is so bad I thought I might lose my lunch. Nothing is quite so bad as watching child actors ham it up absurdly.
"Monsieur Lazhar" tells not only the story of an Algerian immigrant struggling to get political asylium in Canada, but the story of a multicutural and young country discovering its own identity and, consequently, its own limits and weaknesses. How many immigrants couldn´t repeat Alice´s words?
"My school is beautiful. Maybe not the most beautiful, but it's mine. So...
At first, when I started coming here, my mom kept saying how nice it was.
Personally, I found it ok... But now, six years later, I also think it's really nice. Because it's mine. A big yard to play soccer and basketball, where parents drop their kids off in the morning. They take care of us, check to see if we have lice, how our teeth are, if we're aggressive or hyperactive. But this nice school is where Martine Lachance hanged herself. With her blue scarf from the big pipe on a Wednesday night. (...) Martine must've been discouraged with her life. The last thing she did was kick her chair to make it fall over. Sometimes I wonder if she wasn't sending a violent message."
The anguish of relocation is algo the anguish of the kids having to deal with their teacher´s death. While some people fight for life, others give up without explanation. Here we have the opposition between Martine and Lazhar´s wife, between freedom and opression. Despite the differences, resamblances: their belongings. When Lazhar uses his wife´s stamp on assignments, he is taking Martine along with him.
In the most majority of moves about teachers and students, the new teacher always brings a fresh air. Monsieur Lazhar, on the other hand, brings back the methods and rigor of old times, along, however, with a real passion for kids. Indirectly, the movie questions the modern teaching methods that include a constant parental intervention and that ultimately undermine the teacher-student relationship.
Counting with an amazing leading actor and a great cast - if they made a remake of "My Girl', Sophie Nélisse just had to play Vada, due to her resemblance to that young Anna Chlumsky - "Monsieur Lazhar" perfectly balances fiction and reality, finding the accurate measure of drama required.
Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) is a mysterious Algerian refugee who becomes a subsitute teacher after a Montreal public school teacher hangs herself in her classroom on a school day! The thrust of the plot is his attempt to deal with the grief of the suicidal teacher's students and within the administration of the school itself led by the Principal (the marvellous Danielle Proulx. ) He also has a budding romance with a fellow teacher and fractious relationships with some parents and students.
There is not a false note from any of the cast at any moment. The restraint of the acting druing intense and hightly charged emotions is ultimately much more moving than big melodramatic screeching histrionics. Algerian comedian Felag gives an unforgettable performance as a man who manages to suggest a devastating back story without actually spelling out what it is. So he is uniquely qualified to help the children with their grief.
However, the plot situations themselves are either extremely unlikely (and unbelievable) or not properly explained. Let's start with why a beloved teacher (albeit with mental problems) would hang herself in a school room during a school day. I might buy that if given some detail of what this teacher was all about, but it remains a mystery. Then let's wonder why a responsible principal would hire a guy off the street as a teacher, not check one credential on his CV in a very PC and formalized school system?
The film suffers in its second half (Act 3 for all you budding screenwriters) with some quick leaps to resolve things. We are also cheated out of some relationships that have developed too quickly - for example, the special bond between Lazhar and Alice, one of his students who has helped deal with her grief. This may be because it is based on a short one man play written by Quebec playwright Evelyne De La Cheniere, who appears as Alice's mother, an airline pilot. Some of those leaps in a one act monologue need to be filled in for a full length film and Felardeau has failed to do that. (Or scenes are lying on the cutting room floor - I know there is NO cutting room floor anymore - that I don't know about. )
However, Felardeau has done so many things right, that his film richly deserves its Academy Award nomination. Whatever carping I did the previous paragraph should not deter anyone from wanting to see this wonderful film.
"Monsieur Lazhar" is a thoughtful and nuanced look at broken lives being put back together again in multicultural Montreal where differences are more based on age than anything else, with Bachir's back story coming out in fits and bursts. As familiar as some of the story elements may be, it is worth noting how in less sensitive hands it could have gone terribly wrong and didn't, even if one of the children seems straight out of central casting.(I think it's a nice touch that Alice's mom is an airline pilot, a traditionally male occupation.) But as well as the movie opens quickly and efficiently in setting up the story, the ending it just as perfunctory.