January 27, 2012
Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Enormous. Philippe Falardeau’s adaptation of Evelyne de la Cheneliere’s play won TIFF’s Best Canadian Feature award when it premiered in English Canada last fall; it has since gone on to win the Toronto Film Critics’ Association similarly titled prize and is nominated for multiple Genie awards. More to the point, M. Lazhar has been nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, which places it on the coveted international art film stage, making it likely that the film will play in dozens of countries around the world.
The genres and themes
A drama that deals with immigration; teacher/student relationships; grief; loss and alienation
The premise and plot
The film begins with a shock: one morning, a schoolboy, Simon, discovers his teacher has committed suicide in their classroom during the night. Mme. Vaillancourt, the grief stricken principal, the teachers and students are clearly traumatized. In their midst appears M. Lazhar, a school teacher from Lebanon, recently arrived in Montreal, who offers himself as the replacement. Without investigating further, Mme. Vaillancourt hires him.
A charming middle-aged man, Lazhar ingratiates himself to students and faculty alike, in particular fellow teacher Claire Lajoie, who is infatuated with him. Coming from the Middle East and a product of the old French imperial methods of teaching, Lazhar encounters some bumps in dealing with modern Quebecois kids, who are not expected to read Balzac or speak formally to each other. On the whole, though, the children respond to Lazhar, in particular one of the students, Alice.
Slowly, it’s revealed that Lazhar isn’t quite the character he’s presenting to the school. It was his wife who was the teacher, not him. Lazhar is dealing with his own grief: his wife and children died in a fire in the Middle East after he escaped to Montreal and he’s terrified that if he returns, he will “die,” too. Perhaps out of shared suffering, Lazhar keeps on trying to bring the students out, to confront their anger and upset over the suicide of their beloved teacher. Simon and Alice’s friendship has been torn apart from the death and they’re not alone in being in shock.
Overhanging this tale of grief and mutual burdens is the question: how can one accept tragedy and embrace life? In the end, the various plot strands are resolved but the film’s central issue remains unanswered—which is how it should be.
Despite the high drama of the film’s premise, Monsieur Lazhar offers little opportunity for the performers to shine. The exception is Fellag, who is brilliant as the title character: you see the geniality and charm of Lazhar but also his sadness. A compelling performance. The other surprise is the overall competence of the youngsters playing Lazhar’s students; they’re uniformly natural—a hard thing to do
Falardeau opened up a one-man play and created a world in which M. Lazhar could perform. Deliberately low-key in direction, the film benefits from Falardeau’s decision to let the very dramatic story unfold in an unfettered manner. He also shows true directorial craft in eliciting fine performances from children, a very difficult thing to do.
Falardeau is clearly a storyteller on the rise.
It doesn’t matter if Monsieur Lazhar wins the Academy Award; just a nomination will ensure Falardeau’s film receives recognition worldwide. Personal opinion: A Separation will win the Best Foreign Film Oscar but Monsieur Lazhar will win many Genies—deservedly.