Film Review: Monsieur Lazhar
Director: Philippe Falardeau (2012)
Ladies and gentleman, the stopover in the states has been fun and all, but it’s time accept myself for the pretentiousness prick I am, get off the damn subtitle wagon and hitch a ride to Cinema de France. Sort of, technically Monsieur Lazhar isn’t actually a French film, it’s actually from that bit of Canada which is exactly like France, and everyone living there acts French but instead of penis shaped towers, copious amounts of graffiti and gallons of butter in cooking, there’s snow and the occasional polar bear.
Now it’s time to get down with your bad self and a plot summary;
We begin in one of those properly funded primary schools I’ve been hearing so much about; Smiling teachers mingle with the pre-teen offspring of the middle to upper classes in a well-equipped and spacious playground, the entire scene enveloped by the protective arms of a beautifully maintained school building, an atmosphere of social cohesion and harmony fills the air and all is right with the world. Then two students discover their teacher’s hung herself in their classroom. Monsieur Lazhar not being a film about Zombies or the resurrected bodily form of a malevolent, hypocritical and almost certainly none-existent god, the result is a teaching post opens up at properly funded primary school. In some ways that’s a shame, because a Zombie teacher is about all that’s left to do in the Genre now that Abraham Lincoln stepped up to shoot the brainless tykes.
However potential candidates find something a bit unattractive about a teaching post where the last occupier killed themselves and the head teacher of properly funded primary school soon finds herself desperately imploring the support teacher to teach the class until someone comes along. Fortuitously, one might say, it’s at this very point Monsieur Lazhar (Mohamed Saïd Fellag), an Algerian immigrant, comes along. The head teacher not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, opts immediately to hire him, cue emotional times as Monsieur Lazhar attempts to bridge the culture gap between several properly funded French Canadian Primary School students and an Algerian trained teacher, reach and nurture a class still coming to terms with their previous teacher’s death, form relationships with the professionals around him, understand the rules of a properly funded school system which includes frowning on physical contact of any kind and as if all that wasn’t enough, his own reasons for emigrating to French Canada. Plot summary concludes.
I’d be lying if I said reading the words; suicide, cultural gap and immigrant, in the ever-so-slightly more concise and superiorly written Showroom Cinema blurb (Yes I feel I can still go there after last weeks ‘review’) didn’t ring an alarm bell in my head. I had tormenting visions of a gallic or gallic Canadian version of Dead Poets Society, only with the suicide at the end instead of the beginning, more smoking and someone actually funny in the role of Robin Williams. The problem is films about suicide tend to go one of two ways, there’s the incredibly insincere ‘oh yeah it’s a serious thing but it’s kind of funny so we’ll have lots of cheap laughs at someone who keeps trying to kill themselves, but then justify this with a superficially serious scene we threw in at the end’ approach championed by Oscar nominated fare such as Three And Out and Chumscrubber, (Never heard of them? Give yourself a star). Then there’s the bleaker Requiem for a Dream/Imaginary Heroes approach, where suicide is just a part of a slow, melodramatic bludgeon to the audience’s head that repeats until they’ve gone too numb to care and, none-existent god help me, start wanting to buy 30 Seconds to Mars albums.
Luckily, Monsieur Lazhar is just French enough to avoid the clichés and instead attempt a subtle character exploration. The focus shifts between the children; particularly the young boy and girl who witnessed their teacher’s swinging time, and Mr Lazhar’s attempt to fit into an alien culture where even the verbs used are different. Some genuinely moving scenes occur when he starts exploring the differing ways in which the children and teachers deal with suicide and I actually found myself getting attached to the guy. He’s just fish out of water enough to be endearing, but has enough of a handle on the situation to not be helpless and annoying. He’s just kind of a cool guy and Fellag makes for an excellent funny version of Robin Williams.
Pretty much every character is well rounded and believable, and the acting, including the children’s, is impressive. There’re no annoying Matilda children who feel scarily alien or more intelligent than the majority of the world’s population bringing things down and it’s nice to see just how much like regular children the school children look. There’s also a naturalistic approach where unimportant conversations about things like an Ipod’s shuffle setting occur during intimate moments, which won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you get past that, there’s something a bit profound about Monsieur Lazhar.
What impressed me the most is just how accurate a case study of suicide it is. I don’t wanna be ‘that guy’, or turn this review into something else, but I’ve got experience in the subject; there’re two friends who I should but can’t see anymore, and even though a lot of years have passed, I still remember the gambit of emotions you run; there’s anger for sure, a sense of betrayal, sadness, a weird kind of guilt where you kind of feel it’s your fault and an even weirder kind of guilt that chooses to hit you in the face when you start enjoying yourself. This guilt tries to make you think that enjoying yourself is a betrayal of your friendship. The weirdest thing of all though, is how life goes on, the world turns and everything, including yourself, just kind of moves forward even though you don’t really understand why…………………………………..
Monsieur Lazhar manages to explore this same gambit accurately and probably more importantly, sincerely. The teacher’s suicide acts as a jumping off point for this mix of emotions and coping strategies, but it’s the characters, and their lives, not their sadness, which is the story. Touching moments where Mr Lazhar jokes to his one Arabic student during an English lesson, or light hearted scenes where he meets the two other male teachers at the school don’t feel out of place or jar a story that also has a fair share of darker scenes exploring the effects, and our ability to talk about suicide. That’s a hell of a thing to achieve, in the wrong hands this would have been a bleak, numbing experience, in fact it is a bleak experience, but it’s also an enjoyable one; Something realistic, bigger than a regular film plot has been captured in Monsieur Lazhar, something quite probably important.
The subject matter, the subtitles and it’s naturalistic style mean Monsieur Lazhar won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s certainly not a perfect film; a few scenes drag, there’s an odd yet predictable ending and some of the conversations hover between naturalistic and inane, but there aren’t that many films with a scene that still gives me goose bumps whenever I remember it (explaining what that scene is would be a spoiler I’m just not swilling to do) and for that, if nothing else, means I have to recommend it.
Written by Sam ‘Commits professional suicide with every film review’ McKinstrie
Unnecessarily on twitter as McKinstHFP
See HFP’s videos at www.youtube.com/MrHFProductions
See photo’s from HFP shoots and more at facebook