(This piece originally appeared, in different form, in the spring calendar of Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, the art-house exhibition wing of the film’s distributor, Music Box Films.)
At first glance, Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar belongs to that deeply recognizable strain of Western narrative culture about teachers and their students. Going deeper into the movie, that proves an accurate though far too limited characterization.
The movie, the Canadian submission, was a finalist for the foreign-language Academy Award (it lost, of course, to A Separation). This fourth feature by the talented Québécois filmmaker Falardeau surprises, in both the hardness of its underlying concerns, and the unpredictability of the storytelling. In exploring the complex emotional interactions of a mysterious new teacher and his children newly marked by tragedy, Falardeau never sentimentalizes the material.
Framed by a mournful quality and a severe sense of loss and disruption, the movie is alternately tough, tender and revealing. The title character, an Algerian émigré wonderfully played by Mohammed Fellag, turns up as an unorthodox replacement at a Montreal primary school following an inexplicably incident.
Falardeau, who also wrote the film, deftly draws on the contrasting personalities of bright, curious Alice (Sophie Nélisse) and the sullen, withdrawn Simon (Émilien Néron) to shape the action and study the severe and harsh emotional complications of sadness and regret. Falardeau intertwines two stories of the children and the private trauma of the teacher that we learn through his petition for permanent residency status as a political refugee.
The underlying melancholia is sharply expressed, visually, by the movie’s white-on-white compositions of the largely snow-bound Montreal landscapes (the talented Ronald Plante did the wonderfully restrained cinematography). Without saying too much about the rupture of the movie’s opening, it is startling and disquieting moment, the boy discovering something devastating and the young girl becoming his sort of accomplice to the horrible deed.
The relationship of these two remarkable young actors is one of the film’s great achievements. In small, private ways, the two negotiate their shared pain and loneliness, both trapped in less than ideal family arrangements of missing or absent parents. Acutely demonstrated by the boy’s almost fetishistic devotion to a photograph, Simon loved his former teacher and her act is perceived by him as a naked and brutal form of rejection and betrayal.
The movie, like a Pirandello work, is all about masks and sheathed identities. Upset that his students are learning English when they have yet to master the subtleties and arrangements of their native language, Lazhar tacitly acknowledges his own precarious status as a émigré trapped, by law and rules, to try and assimilate his own alien space.
Monsieur Lazhar is intimate and hand-made in the best sense. The movie is animated by the subtle interplay between Lazhar and his students that is funny, revealing and full of observational subtlety.
My only real complaint is the abruptness of the movie’s closing section. The narrative revelations are a bit too haphazardly overlaid for my taste. It recovers with a beautiful and extraordinary closing emotional exchange of the teacher and young Alice that floored me.
Philippe Falardeau is a director new to me, and I am eager to look at and discovery his other work. The filmmaker and his eponymous teacher take these young students and their lives very seriously, granting them a fullness of character that registers finally as a deeply humane and generous piece of work.