Friday, February 17, 2012

A Delicate Gem: Monsieur Lazhar

Mohamed Fellag stars in Monsieur Lazhar

Though Quebec is one of Canada’s more multicultural and diverse provinces, largely because of Montreal's population mix, its cinema has usually failed to reflect that reality. That’s partly because Canada’s cultural policies too neatly divide Canadian film funding into French and English increments: French for Quebec and English for the rest of the country. Thus Montreal Anglophones wanting to make movies in Quebec are usually out of luck, and Francophones wanting to shoot movies in Ontario, which has some sizable French-language enclaves, are equally so. And since that’s the case, Quebec’s French filmmakers are much more likely to make films about their own communities with less attention paid to the other cultures they bump up against. That was the source of some controversy when Anglophone filmmaker Jacob Tierney (The Trotsky) complained – in a French language newspaper interview – that Quebec cinema wasn’t reflecting the multicultural realities of the day. (He did, unfortunately, feel the need to distance himself from the late Mordecai Richler who famously and accurately commented that Quebec nationalists who spoke of Quebec for Quebeckers did not envision people named O’Reilly, Ginsberg and Wong among them. While French filmmakers weren’t being racist so much as myopic, the salient point and end result is identical.) The other reason that a cultural omission exists in Quebec cinema is likely because majorities tend not to try to understand or feature the concerns of minorities. That however is beginning to change. Denis Villeneuve’s excellent Incendies dealt with an Arab family trying to make a new life in Quebec. And Philippe Falardeau’s very fine new movie Monsieur Lazhar is filtered through the prism of a refugee interacting with, and trying to make his way through, a dominant French Canadian landscape.

Mohamed Fellag in Monsieur Lazhar
Monsieur Lazhar is Bachir Lazhar (comedian, writer and actor Mohamed Fellag, going by only his last name in the credits), an Algerian who applies for a teaching job when he reads about an elementary school teacher who has committed suicide. He’s not being crass so much as simply wanting to work while he awaits the results of his application for landed immigrant status in Canada. But his sojourn at the school ends up teaching him much about his hoped-for adopted country, even as he makes an impression on his young charges.

The beauty of Falardeau’s delicate gem is that it neatly avoids all the clichés of movies about teachers while quietly crafting an incisive portrait of a man who actually makes a difference. For once, this isn’t a movie about an educator having to win over recalcitrant students who don’t want to learn; a formulaic conceit going back as far as Blackboard Jungle (1955) and To Sir, with Love (1967) but also prominent in Laurent Cantet’s fact-based and excellent The Class (Entre les murs) (2008). Bachir doesn’t have any difficulty bonding with the 11- and 12-year-old kids. And when Claire (Brigitte Poupart), a female colleague shows interest in Bachir – one of the few men at the school – her dinner invitation doesn’t play out as you might expect. Similarly, though Bachir has a tragic personal history that no one except his lawyer is privy to, it’s not information that he shares with anyone, a plot revelation that most films would have had trouble resisting,

Monsieur Lazhar, instead, is more interested in showcasing how an old school teacher attempts to fit into a new-age environment. At first, he seems to be a fossil who doesn’t get it, as when his quick slap on a student’s head earns him a reprimand from the principal. He also gets lightly criticized for using Balzac as a source for his dictation class, a high culture choice that he has to jettison in favour of Jack London's White Fang, seemingly an odd choice in a Francophone school. But soon enough, it becomes clear that he is the only person who wants to deal with and have the young children articulate their feelings about their teacher’s suicide, even as that discussion is a torment for Simon (Émilien Néron), one of the two children who actually saw their teacher’s body hanging in her classroom. The other witness, Alice (Sophie Nélisse) is traumatized, too, but not for the same reason as Simon. She’s also Bachir’s favourite student, and their scenes together are ineffably moving, even heartbreaking.

Director Philippe Falardeau
Monsieur Lazhar – which Falardeau based on a one-act play by Évelyne de la Chenelière, and is in the running for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards – is a modern movie with old-fashioned sensibilities. Not a bad thing. It's a critique of a present day when fearful teachers, with good reason, are afraid to touch or hug their students, even though at that age, innocent physical contact is something young children, particularly troubled ones, actually need. And though the teachers and administration mouth the platitudes about getting the kids psychological help in the wake of the school suicide, it's soon clear that they don't really want to delve into the difficult issues underneath the surface of this placid, middle-class school, reminiscent of the Montreal Jewish private elementary school I attended as a child.

The film also possesses a sly humour, as when one teacher labels Rice Krispie squares as the Quebec version of the Middle Eastern baklava pastry. One inadvertent joke is Bachir's enjoyment of the green spaces around him in Montreal; a city I grew up in, which I once read, apparently contains less green space than any comparable North American city. But the film is smart enough to recognize that Bachir's pleasures, simple as they may seem, are all he has to hold on to in his new environment. And though his fellow teachers and Mme Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), the principal who hired him, don’t really understand him or see eye to eye with his teaching methods and views, they’re not villains, just nice folk somewhat seduced by dubiously mandated methods of handling trauma and pain. (I didn't buy the fact that one student actor would carry a mock gun in a historical pageant. That's unlikely in Quebec, and certainly in Montreal, which is more anti-gun than anywhere else in Canada, mostly because of the horrendous 1989 Montreal massacre.)

Fellag's subtle performance, and the delicate calibration of the story are well-nigh perfect and testament to writer/director Falardeau's talents, including his edgy and jaunty DIY 2000 debut, The Left Side of the Fridge (La Moitié gauche du frigo). That film cast a jaundiced eye on the negative effects of globalization. His follow up feature, Congorama (2006), was a touching and modest tale of a Belgian man, in an interracial relationship, who suddenly finds out that he was adopted and sets out for Quebec to find his father. Both those films are preoccupied with the connections between various people, a perfect set-up and precursor to Monsieur Lazhar. Only Falardeau's third feature, It's Not Me, I Swear! (C’est pas moi, je le jure!) (2008) a quirky coming-of-age film, faltered perhaps because it was tilling familiar cinematic territory. It didn't help that it was made following two superb films on the same subject, Pierre Gang's Sous-sol (1996) and Jean- Marc Vallée's C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005). The entire cast, including the kids and the other adults, are all fine too in a movie that never pushes obvious emotional buttons. I suspect its deliberately low-key nature may result in some filmgoers underestimating its appeal and effect, but they’d be wrong to do so. Monsieur Lazhar is an example of less being more, an indelible film that will stay with you for a long time.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. He is currently teaching a course there on the films of Sidney Lumet, which began on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.

1 comment:

  1. Much as I wish I loved the film, I don't. I do, however, love your review - proof positive again of what's missing in so much contemporary film criticism and only found intermittently in pockets here and there. Your review is inspiring in so far as every word you've etched is a gem and I loved reading it even though I'm very mixed on the picture myself. Criticism should be a dialogue between the writer and reader. Your Lazhar review delivered that for me in spades. Cool shit, Shlomo. Thanks for another excellent review.