Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar

Set in francophone Montreal, which looks to be as much a city of immigrants as my own New York, Monsieur Lazhar is a delicately powerful reminder that you never know what kind of hard, hard story the person next to you in the street or on the train may be quietly coping with—especially if he or she is a refugee from a troubled country.

Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian with kind eyes and an anachronistically courtly manner, appears like Mary Poppins at a troubled grade school, brushing aside customary procedures and promising an instantaneous, irresistible solution to a critical problem: A bunch of children need the firm but sensitive guidance of an adult authority figure, whether they know it or not.

But the children in the class Monsieur Lazhar takes over have a much bigger problem than the Banks clan, who had nothing more serious than parental neglect to cope with. Actually, some of these kids have that problem too—Alice (Sophie NĂ©lisse), the precocious little beauty who becomes her new teacher’s favorite, has an absent father and a commercial pilot mother who’s forever flying off for days at a time—but the real crisis, the thing that’s making Alice miss her mother more than usual, is the suicide of the teacher Monsieur Lazhar has replaced.

The well-meaning principal dispatches a psychologist to talk to the kids en masse, but she’s blind to their guilt and grief. So it’s up to Monsieur Lazhar—or Bachir, as the kids call him, since their maybe a little too anti-authoritarian school promotes the use of first names—to acknowledge the depth of their wounds and teach them how to heal themselves.

Seemingly tossed-off details like the big paper fish pasted to the back of Lazhar’s jacket in one scene, which he seems unaware of and which nobody else remarks on, mark the students’ growing fondness for their teacher, while equally telling little things like his refusal to be photographed hint at the secret that unfolds organically in the background.

Meanwhile, the journey teacher and students take toward one another follows a predictable and sentimental arc, probably explaining why this was Canada’s Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film. But it’s sentimental in a good way, with none of the mugging or bathetic self-pity of that other French-language film that swept this year’s awards.

Monsieur Lazhar earns the lump it leaves in your throat, building up to it with a deliberately paced, beautifully acted catalogue of small but crucial acts of kindness and compassion offered up in defiance of monstrous cruelty and violence.

Written for The L Magazine


  1. I finally got to see Monsieur Lazhar, and I agree with you that it's sentimental in a good way, with a thoughtful perspective on living with grief. Geoff pointed out later that it has an unfortunate strain of misogyny with its story of inadequate women--a teacher who commits suicide in her classroom, a principal unable to cope, an art teacher too quick to judge others, a mother whose job as a pilot requires her to be gone from home, a talented woman teacher who is nonetheless needy and desperate for a man in her life, etc. When the male gym teacher complains that the school is a womanocracy, the film seems to agree with him. The "soft" style of teaching criticized by the film is associated with women, who don't let the boys play rough and who dilute the curriculum. M. Lazhar arrives like a knight in shining armor, without teaching credentials but able to provide "solidity." It's too bad, because the film could have been made without pitting men against women. --Claudia

  2. Thanks, Claudia--and Geoff! Very interesting take on the movie, and it's very interesting (to me) that Geoff was bothered by that and it didn't bother me at all. Lord knows I've seen a lot of movies--M*A*S*H and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, to name two--whose underlying misogyny spoke louder to me than their surface messages of personal freedom or rebellion against corrupt authority or whatever. I wonder if I just gave this one a pass for some reason or if those inadequate women felt to me like part of a story about human weakness of all kinds (after all, Alice's pilot mother is doing a much better job of parenting than her father, who's completely out of the picture) rather than a form of misogyny. I'll have to rematch it one of these days with Geoff's critique in mind and see if it changes how I experience it.

    1. I didn't pick up on the misogyny either, but when Geoff pointed it out, I could see it, especially given the gym teacher's observation that the school is a womanocracy. You're right that all the adults have weaknesses, even Bachir, but the film does seem to come down harder on women.
      We're going to see Moonrise Kingdom tonight. --Claudia

  3. I'll be interested to hear what you think of that. Sometimes I love Wes Anderson's movies and sometimes I can't stand to watch them.

  4. We liked Moonrise Kingdom. It reminded us in spirit of Fantastic Mr. Fox, which we also liked, and it helped that it was filmed in Rhode Island in some of our favorite haunts. And it succeeds, I think, in capturing the pain and magical thinking of adolescent outsiders. I'll be curious to know what you think if you see it.
    I was sorry to see that Andrew Sarris has died. --Claudia