Written and directed by Philippe Falardeau
French with English subtitles.

Review by Clarissa K. Wittenberg

May 25, 2012

This paradoxical film is shaped by tragedy starting with a boy finding his teacher had hanged herself in their classroom, but it ends with the joy and wonder of life. It is beautifully acted and directed. The script by Philippe Falardeau is riveting, precise and natural. It portrays the reactions of the children to the suicide of a favorite teacher and slowly uncovers the concealed past of other figures. Many brilliant thinkers, including Nietzsche who saw art as a counter to nihilism, have written that art transforms tragedy and affirms life.

Monsieur Bachir Lazhar, an immigrant from Algeria, played by Mohamed Fellaq, having read of the suicide in the papers, applies for the newly vacant teaching position with an air of desperation and an exaggerated resume. Set in a public elementary school in Montreal, the students are from diverse backgrounds. An educated man, Lazhar shows he has no idea how to teach young children when he begins by reading Balzac and asking the children to write out dictation. He enforces discipline in the class—even slapping a child—and re-arranges the desks in straight lines. Quickly he is told his expectations are too high, but it all signals change to the students who sense his good will and welcome the new beginning.

It quickly becomes clear that there is a clash between the teacher and the school principal. Lazhar and the principal, Mme. Vaillancourt, played by Danielle Prouix, are simultaneously co-conspirators and antagonists. She feels some of the same conflicts but also expresses sad weariness. She shrugs when he asks if the class could be moved to another room and she responds by saying “That is why they put on fresh paint.” The school prefers shielding the children from talking about the suicide and leaving the distress of the children be addressed by the experts. Lazhar can barely keep himself from responding to the inevitable questions of the students and from trying to comfort them. Both his slap and his pats on the backs of students violate another rule: zero touching of a student by a teacher. A father implores Lazhar “not to raise his child, but to teach her.” The reasons for the teacher’s immigration and the vulnerability of his entry into Canadian life become clear as the film progresses. There are glimpses of the particular loneliness and fragility of an immigrant such as a meticulous daily routine. We see his simple apartment; his awkward social life; and we watch unnoticed as he dances to the music of his past.

The children are wonderful. Simon, the boy who found the teacher, played by Emilien Neron, conveys his trauma almost without words. You could drown in the eyes of Alice, Simon’s schoolmate, played by Sophie Nelisse. Falardeau’s direction makes it difficult to remember this a film, not a real group of children in a real school. I was reminded of the children in two French films: Francois Trauffaut’s 400 Blows and Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants.

I was fortunate to be invited to meet Philippe Falardeau at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. He spoke candidly and modestly of his success. Although he has made other films, all with a certain success and several dealing with immigration to Canada, this film was the first international success. He confided he loved working with children in films and found parts of himself in many of them. He told of having to have a publicist with him holding a placard with his name, the title of the film and its nomination for an Oscar while he walked on the red carpet because no one knew who he was. He counts the red carpet of the Oscars and the Grand Canyon as two wonders of the United States. I intend to find his previous films and look forward to seeing his future work.

MONSIEUR LAZHAR (94 minutes, at area theaters, Rated PG-13).

Clarissa K. Wittenberg was a founder and editor of the Washington Review, a journal of arts and literature that documented cultural life in Washington for over 28 years. She is currently Creative Director at the Washington Film Institute.