Monsieur Lazhar joins Incendies and Café de Flore on the growing list of French-Canadian dramas to make a big impression amongst critics and art-house audiences in recent-times, though it is less elaborate — both stylistically and narratively — than either of them. A poignant and unpretentious social drama, the film perhaps shares more in common with its fellow Best Foreign Language Oscar Nominee A Separation, from Iran, which similarly employed unobtrusive directorial technique and naturalistic performances to relate affecting themes and feelings with understated honesty and clarity. Deservedly, the Iranian film – truly a masterpiece – took home the Academy gold. Had the competition been less fierce, however, then the Canadians could very well have staked a claim.
A Montreal elementary school is shaken when fourth-grade student Simon (Emilien Neron) discovers that his class’ much-loved teacher has hung herself in the classroom. The faculty do their best to explain the incident to the children, while the principal (Danielle Proulx; C.R.A.Z.Y) scrambles to find a suitable replacement. When Bachir Lazhar (Mohammed Fellag) – an immigrant without Canadian teaching permits, but 19 years of experience in his native Algeria – arrives in her office and asks for the job, her desperation outweighs her common sense, and she hires him. A polite, soft-spoken gentleman, Lazhar, despite some cultural differences, soon becomes popular with the staff and the students, and slowly the school starts to rebuild.
While it might sound like it, Monsieur Lazhar is not the story of that one Dead Poets Society-style teacher who singlehandedly inspires his students. Instead, it exists in the real world, where life occurs over time, and not in big, bombastic instances of heightened drama and emotion. Writer/director Philippe Falardeau favours a minimalist directorial approach that recalls both the veracity and the social consciousness of Laurent Cantet’s Paris-set classroom drama The Class. Here, key scenes reveal the prejudice that asylum seekers like Lazhar are faced with, while conversations in the staff-room speak to contemporary issues in education.
Due to budget restraints, Lazhar is forced to teach his class in the same room where their teacher ended her life. The suicide casts a shadow across the minds of staff and students alike, but what drove her to commit such an act – and in the place she that did – is not a question the film has interest in exploring. Monsieur Lazhar is a story about grief, and so what matters are the people left behind: how they struggle, how they mourn, how they process feelings of responsibility. As Simon and his fellow classmates attempt to come to terms with what has happened, information is slowly revealed about their new teachers tragic past, subtly mirroring the films main themes of survivor’s guilt and recovering after a loss.
Yet in spite of this, Monsieur Lazhar is never heavy nor maudlin. Under Falardeau’s inconspicuous lens, life plays out with rare authenticity; not just its tragedies, but its triumphs, its mishaps and its incidental interludes. The humour of real life — children squabbling, awkward first dates — undercuts the heartbreak, and makes the emotional payoffs all the more resonant as a result. Lazhar, thanks to Fellag’s impeccable performance, makes for a wonderfully amicable lead; his gentle spirit and optimism is reflected in the film that shares his name.
Monsieur was reviewed as part of our coverage of the 2012 Sydney Film Festival. It will be released in Australia on September 6th