At the Florida premiere screening of Monsieur Lazhar at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, Canada-based director Philippe Falardeau made a rare appearance via Skype. During his introduction he waffled between a healthy, natural sense of humor and an insightful exploration of his film, typical of this stealthy, humanistic and whimsical little film. As the movie takes place in a Montreal middle school, he was asked about working with child actors. “There’s a saying in Hollywood,” he said, “‘One should never work with animals or children’ [W.C. Fields]. I think this is unfair to animals.” Of course he was joking, and the crowd roared with laughter. The director also laid out the film’s theme: “It’s a film about meeting the Other…” The same extreme but causal tonal shift typifies the drama/humor of Monsieur Lazhar, a natural extension of the affable director.
The titular character is played with a soulful quietness by Algerian comedian Mohamed Fellag (don’t expect Roberto Benigni buffoonery). He appears at the school, out of the blue, offering his services to teach a class coping with the sudden death of its teacher, who happened to have hanged herself in the classroom. Just after recess, two of the children, Simon (Émilien Néron) and Alice (Sophie Nélisse), discovered their beloved teacher’s corpse. From this morbid setup, Falardeau takes the viewer on a winding road of character dynamics with tight, powerful scenes that never dwell too long in preciousness to stagnate in melodrama. The ultimate and well-earned prize at the end of this quest for post-traumatic peace and acceptance is simple and never over-explained or sugar-coated with fanciful camera angles or sweeps and— God forbid— cloying music. This is a director with a healthy confidence in his ability to show a story through cinema.
Though it officially saw release in 2011, the film is finally making rounds in US theaters via indie/world film distributor Music Box Films. It arrives with lots of hype, as it was Canada’s entry in the foreign language film competition in the 2012 Oscar® race. Though it lost out to the more serious but amazing Iranian film A Separation, the following month it would clean up at the Genies, Canada’s version of the Academy Awards. It won best film, director, lead actor, supporting actress for Nélisse, adapted screenplay and editing.
It turns out that, indeed, the accolades bestowed on this film (and there were several others), are well-earned. One could argue Monsieur Lazhar has a tougher task than A Separation, as it totes along a sense of humor on its heavy ride to self-actualization. But the journey does not only involve the children. Lazhar brings his own baggage with him, and it is a doozy. As the Algerian immigrant finds himself dealing with the delicate emotions of pre-teens coping with a horrific death, he must deal with his own personal tragedy and a complicating secret.
Falardeau harnesses an efficient sense of story-telling with a great eye for juxtapositions. A frivolous playground scene that opens the film captures the innocence and contentedness of the children while also staying grounded in the banal. It offers a genius set-up to an encounter with the Lacanian shock of the real, setting up trauma the characters must come to terms with. Falardeau subtly pushes the chasm between the children and adults by harnessing the power of mise-en-scène. At the beginning, whenever children share the frame with adults, the adults are either shown from behind or from the shoulders down. When we see the children on their own, they are shot at their own eye-level. They are not condescended to, treated as cute props. These kids are not trivial moppet, comic relief. They are real people having to deal with some heavy stuff.
At the same time, Lazhar has his own issues to deal with. Whenever the film presents his out-of-school life, the film’s color palette becomes more muted, and not through filters or cinematographic gimmicks, but with simple, very conscious staging. The children’s world is brighter by comparison. When he wanders the school halls during the students’ group meeting with a therapist, Lazhar winds up with a paper cut-out of a fish stuck to his back. Though humorous, it also resonates with a poignancy. In his early days at the school, Lazhar pats a child on the head wandering through the hall and smacks one of his students in the back of the head when he lobs a wad of paper at a classmate. Lazhar is later told by the school’s principal that touching the children in any way is “against the law.” The camera does not zoom in or dwell on these moments, yet, at the film’s heart, it is all about this human connection and need for healing. A hug in a film never felt more powerful and well-earned.
Watch the trailer:
Monsieur Lazhar is rated PG-13, has a runtime of 94 minutes and is in French with English subtitles. It opened at the Coral Gables Art Cinema yesterday for its South Florida premiere run (I was invited to the event for the purposes of this review). They are screening it in 35mm and have it booked through April 19. It expands throughout Florida on April 20 at Living Room in Boca Raton, the Movies of Delray, the Movies of Lake Worth and on May 4 at Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. Nationwide screenings dates can be found here.