Monsieur Lazhar
31 January 2012

Hoping to see Monsieur Lazhar a couple of months ago, I allowed myself to be steered in the direction of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia instead. I lasted (just) through von Trier’s powerful opening sequence and its disturbing images of the world coming to an end, but the combination of family dysfunction and Wagner got me within minutes after that, and I walked out, physically nauseated.

Film reviewers have to an emotionally stalwart breed, I thought when I got home, only there I found an account on the internet of a screening of Melancholia where the reviewer from the New York Times was seen in the women’s washroom comforting the reviwer from the Village Voice.

Monsieur Lazhar, now nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Film, is directed by Philippe Falardeau, who is also responsible for adapting Evelyne de la Chenelière’s 2007 stage play Bashir Lazhar. The film tells the story of an Algerian refugee taking over after the suicide of a beloved teacher, Martine, who hanged herself in the classroom. Disturbing as this is, the film shows only glimpses, from the hallway, of the back of Martine’s body to Simon and Alice, the two children we will get to know best. The focus is not on the suicide, but on the children and on Monsieur Lazhar himself, for he has his own horrifying (and off-screen) story of a wife and children burned to death in Algiers for political reasons.

What I loved about Monsieur Lazhar is its delicacy. So much of what is most powerful here is touched on glancingly. The facial expressions of the actors speak louder than any words. There is genius at work in the casting and direction of the children, among whom Sophie Nélisse as Alice and Émilien Néron as Simon are standouts, and of Monsieur Lazhar himself, played by Algerian actor, comedian and author Fellag.

Monsieur Lazhar claims to be an experienced teacher, but that is a lie he tells to persuade the desperate head teacher, Madame Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), to let him take over the class; it was his wife who was a teacher in Algiers, where he had a restaurant. I love the fact that he is so clueless that his first dictée is a passage from Balzac. I love the fact that he does not pause even for a beat, let alone address the boy in Arabic, when he is taking attendance and comes across the name Abdelkader. I love the fact that among his late wife’s belongings Monsieur Lazhar finds a little stamp of a camel that he uses on assignments in place of a gold star, and I love the fact that we never see what pleasure that creates. I even love that he straightens the children’s desks into neat rows. Exacting and fastidious as he is, Monsieur Lazhar also loves the children, and they respond in kind.

We respond, too. When he hears music drifting up to his classroom late one winter afternoon, he goes to the window and starts dancing, arms akimbo. It’s an unforgettable moment, a glimpse of joy, and it’s interrupted all too soon by his realization that his fellow teacher Claire (Brigitte Poupart) has been standing at the door watching him. She invites him to dinner at her place, which is not a great success either romantically or dramatically, although it does have the effect of allowing us to better know a Québécoise from Chibougamou who had lived in Bamoko before ever coming to Montreal.

Coming from a foreign country, Monsieur Lazhar has to be told it is forbidden for a teacher to touch a child. When a distraught Simon breaks down in tears at the thought that he might have been responsible for Martine’s death, Monsieur Lazhar goes over to comfort and reassure him, touching him lightly, struggling with the urge to hug him.

Playwright de la Chenelière plays a small part as Alice’s mother, an airline pilot who goes out of her way to thank Monsieur Lazhar for helping Alice cope with the suicide. Not all the parents are so appreciative, however, and a couple of them make enquiries so that Monsieur Lazhar is eventually found out as a refugee with no teaching experience in Algeria.

The jig is up, but Monsieur Lazhar manages to persuade Madame Vaillancourt to let him teach the afternoon class so he can tell the children himself that he is leaving. At the end of the day, as Alice shuts her locker door and heads unhappily past the classroom door, Monsieur Lazhar is at his desk. She goes in to see him, dropping her schoolbag on the floor. He stands up and comes to meet her, and they hug.

© Linda Leith 2012

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