Movie Reviews - 2011 postsMonday March 11, 2013
Movie Review: The Monk (2011)
For half the movie we’re wondering: Is it “the devil is a woman” or is it just the devil? The answer disappoints. Me anyway.
Vincent Cassel plays Capucin Ambrosio, who, as a baby, was left at the doorstep of a monastery in 16th-century Spain. The title graphic, “1595,” intrigues on its own when you consider that, for most movies, 1979 is ancient history. (The source material, by the way, is a gothic novel first published in 1796 by Matthew G. Lewis, Esq., who was not yet 20 years old. It’s been filmed twice before: in 1972 starring Franco Nero; and in 1990 starring Paul McGann. We get a new version every 20 years, basically.)
Groupie? Snake? Gateway drug?
The movie opens with Ambrosio in the confessional telling a penitent, a man known only as Le Débauché (Sergi Lopez), that “Satan only has the power we give him.” Turns out Le Débauché has given Satan much power. He talks of falling, again and again. He talks of sleeping with his niece several times a day. “What an exquisite abyss,” he says with wonder in his voice. He seems to be enjoying his confession. Ambrosio is not amused. His eyes get darker and spookier. This is Vincent Cassel, after all.
At this point, Ambrosio is something of a local legend. He is a firmly devout man who is able to communicate his faith, and the glory of God, to others. “His faith is so alive it swept my heart away,” says one supplicant, Antonia (Joséphine Japy), who faints after a sermon. We can’t help notice she’s pretty.
Then we follow several storylines:
- Ambrosio’s mentor is dying, and warns of great evil all around.
- A boy in a mask, a burn victim who has lost his parents, Valerio, asks to join the monastery. “I want to withdraw from the world and be closer to God,” he says. The other monks are doubtful and fearful; Ambrosio lets him in.
- A nun visiting Ambrosio’s confessional drops a note indicating an illicit relationship. She begs understanding but Ambrosio gives her up. “Instead of fleeing punishment,” he tells her, “you should yearn for it.” She gets it. Pregnant, she’s imprisoned by L’abesse (Geraldine Chaplin) until she starves to death. She blames Ambrosio for her fate.
- Antonia is courted by a handsome noble but her mother, Elvire (Catherine Mouchet), haunted by her own past, is doubtful.
We wonder how these stories will come together. Antonia’s, in particular, seems to have no relation to Ambrosio’s. Until it does.
The mentor dies, the nun dies, Valerio is revealed to be a girl (Deborah Francois of “Les tribulations d'une caissière”), who wants to be closer, not to God, but to Ambrosio. Is she an early version of a groupie? She asks for a rose from his garden before he sends her away, but as he reaches for it a scorpion bites him and poisons him. Near death, Valerio arrives and … Does she suck the poison out? Does she make love to him? Both? He lives, realizing he’s sinned, then sins again. She’s less groupie than the snake who has entered his Garden of Eden. But is she the snake?
The world turns dark. A fellow monk, about to finger Ambrosio for his infidelity, is killed by a fallen gargoyle. When Ambrosio investigates on the roof of the monastery, he realizes, as do we, that he’s living through a moment he’s dreamed about several times. Over the parapet, on the ground, he sees a woman in a red cloak praying in the baking sun. In his dream he reaches for her but can’t touch her. Now he does. It’s Antonia. She wants him to console her mother, who is dying and haunted by her past. He does. But now he’s haunted by his present and Antonia.
Rebuffed, Valerio offers Ambrosio a further temptation: a floral aphrodisiac, or organic date-rape drug, with which to seduce Antonia. He takes it, takes her, and the two of them, naked, are discovered by Elvire, who recognizes the birthmark on Ambrosio’s shoulder as the birthmark of the baby she gave up. Ambrosio is her child! And he’s sleeping with his sister! But before Elvire can say anything, Ambrosio wakes, walks up to her, and kills her. His mother.
By this point, yeah, I’d lost interest.
Why Satan should stay on the sidelines
While Ambrosio is worth watching in his moral rectitude, he’s not at all interesting in his fall—or in how he falls. It’s an unfair fight, really. Throughout I kept wondering what sexual release 17th-century monks had. None? How impossible. And to then have Satan gang up on you? Poison you and entice you with beautiful French girls? Speaking for men, we have little shot even if Satan stays on the sidelines. Once he gets into the game, it’s over.
The interesting battle, in other words, is internal, not external. The interesting foe is within, not without.
“The Monk” (“Le Moine”), directed by Dominik Moll (“With a Friend Like Harry…”), is beautifully photographed by Patrick Blossier, who juxtaposes the cool monastery with the white-hot, baked surroundings. As always, Vincent Cassel is a force, here mostly held in check. Joséphine Japy has a delicate beauty. But I’m not a fan of gothic anything.
After his trial but before his death, Satan finally appears before Ambrosio. He’s Le Débauché, from the beginning, who throws Ambrosio’s own words back at him: “Satan only has the power we give him.” Then a final deal is struck. Antonia has gone mad (her rapist is her brother who kills their mother) and Ambrosio sells his eternal soul to make her well and happy. One wonders: Is this redemption for Ambrosio, since it’s the ultimate sacrifice? Or is it the final step in Ambrosio’s fall, since his eternal soul belongs to Satan? At which point, black birds, who pecked at the baby Ambrosio at the doorstep of the monastery, pick at the remains of the grown man, dead in the desert.
So probably the latter.
-- March 10, 2013
Movie Review: The Woman in the Fifth (2011)
There’s a moment in “The Woman in the Fifth” when the title character, Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), having just given a handjob to down-on-his-luck novelist Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke), leads him into another room in her high-ceilinged luxury apartment in the fifth arrondissement of Paris. The next shot is a close-up of an incredibly handsome man, with bare shoulders and hair slicked back, and, for a second, I wondered if Margit had led Tom into some kind of orgy with an Italian model. Then it dawned on me: Oh, that’s Tom. That’s Ethan Hawke. She’s bathing him.
That’s right. He’s handsome.
You forget watching “The Woman in the Fifth” (“La femme du Vème”). His character is so skittish and drawn, peering at the world through crooked, smudged glasses, and wearing the same musty clothes (hence the bath), that you forget the guy’s a movie star. Women in the movie are forever removing those glasses. With reason. They’re too askew, and the lenses enlarge his unstable eyes too much. They’re the glasses equivalent of Jack Nicholson’s bandaged nose in “Chinatown.” They’re so unflattering you can’t imagine a movie star wearing them.
An actor, on the other hand...
When did I begin to hate Ethan Hawke with the white hot hatred I usually reserve for members of the New York Yankees? Was it “Reality Bites”? The offhand way he explains the meaning of ‘irony’ to poor Winona Ryder? Was it the fact that he published a novel, “The Hottest State,” in 1996, at a time when I was trying and failing to get short stories published? Was it the privileged, pretentious way he moved through that privileged, pretentious decade? And when did I begin to let go of this unnatural hatred? “Training Day” helped. “Before Sunrise”/“Before Sunset” were OK but he played pretentious in the first and novelist in the second. So it must’ve been his loser brother in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” He stole the film from Philip Seymour Hoffman. I watched for Philip, despite Ethan, and Ethan blew me away.
He does it here, too. He’s a novelist again, with one published book, but you wouldn’t know it looking at him. He seems stunted. Every move he makes is tentative and uncertain. At times he tries to act confident, as before a lawyer, but his bluster augments the uncertainty in his face. It’s hollow and painful and followed by bursts of unrepentant anger. It’s no surprise when we find out he was recently in a mental institution.
As the movie opens, we see him bluffing his way through immigration, bluffing his way into a Parisian apartment building, and when a woman, Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot), tries to shut the door in his face, he pushes his way in. He speaks a passable French but talks to her in English (“Can’t we talk like normal people”) and she responds in clipped French (“Tu n’est pas normal”). Turns out she’s his ex-wife, but he’s less interested in her than in seeing his six-year-old daughter, Chloe (Julie Papillon), and, voila, runs into her as he’s leaving the building. She’s glad to see him; she’s not scared the way Nathalie was. He’s happy she wears glasses like his. Later, he’ll tell her, “You see the world like I do.” Even then, that doesn’t seem like a good thing.
He’s still on the run, though. Nathalie’s called the cops, so he leaves Chloe and tugs his luggage down the street. After falling asleep on a bus, his luggage and wallet are stolen. When he complains, the bus driver tells him, “Go to the police.” The very thing he can’t do.
In this manner he winds up in a rundown Arab cafe/hotel at “Au bon coin” (the Good Corner), which has a pretty Polish waitress, Ania (Joanna Kulig), and where he has to give up his passport to the owner, M. Sezer (Samir Guesmi), to get a small, dingy, second-floor room with a loud, angry neighbor, Omar (Mamadou Minte), who doesn’t flush their shared toilet. At the same time, some luck: Sezer, who may or may not be a petty gangster, gives him a job, €50 a night, to monitor a videocamera in a dingy, locked room, and let in anyone who asks for “M. Monde.” Then at une librairie anglaise, he’s recognized for his first novel, “Forest Life,” and invited to a swanky literary party, where he runs into Margit (Scott Thomas), whom we know to be our titular character, a potential femme fatale, with whom he talks on a balcony overlooking the base of the Eiffel Tower. She’s direct and gives him her card. When he shows up at her place, with a few scraggly flowers in his fist, we get the handjob scene mentioned in the opening graph.
So what’s her game? What’s his? He’s trying to see his daughter, as a father rather than as a stranger on the wrong side of the playground fence. In the meantime he writes her a long letter complete with drawings of woodland creatures, as in the enchanted forest of his first novel, which Ania finds in a Polish translation and reads. She’s impressed and he winds up sleeping with her, too. Unfortunately, Ania is Sezer’s girl, and Omar attempts to blackmail him. He leaves a note:
1,000 EUROS TOMORROW OR YOU’RE DEAD.
Margit, for her part, remains supremely confident in Tom. She tells him his next novel will be great since he has all this material: Sezer, down-and-out in Paris, her. He confides in her about Omar’s threat but she dismisses it:
Tom: You have no idea what these people are capable of.
Margit: You have no idea what you are capable of.
Then things move fast. Upon returning to au bon coin, he can’t open the second-floor WC. It’s blocked. Yes, by Omar, who sits on the toilet, dead, with a plunger down his throat. The cops come and question Tom about his arguments with Omar; they show him the blackmail note with his fingerprints on it. One wonders: Did Sezer set him up? To get back at him for Ania? Tom winds up in a solitary jail cell. Can he sink any lower?
He can. Margit is his alibi, and he tells the cops where she lives. But she doesn’t live there. She’s not even alive. She’s been dead since 1991.
But suddenly he’s released. The police have a new suspect, Sezer, who, when he sees Tom, reacts angrily, claiming Tom set him up.
Throughout the movie, intercut with the action, we’re shown dreamy images of a forest, like the one from Tom’s novel, with a girl in a colorful dress, blurry and just out of view, leaning against a tree. Is she dead? At one point we wonder if it’s Ania in her flower print dress. But when Chloe goes missing, we know it’s her. Not dead, though. We see her wandering back into the city, and the police pick her up and reunite her with her distraught mother. Tom, meanwhile, is reunited with Margit, who represents madness or death. At the end of the movie, he shows up at her door again, sees a flash of white hot light, and gives into it completely.
“The Woman in the Fifth,” the work of Polish writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski, is a smart, atmospheric, noirish thriller that clocks in, like a true 1940s noir, in under 90 minutes. I went in not expecting much. It has a 5.1 IMDb rating, so I assumed pretentious; I assumed it would fall apart. It doesn’t. I was hooked from the beginning. I’m still hooked.
We see the world through Tom’s eyes, like his daughter, and once we know that Margit doesn’t exist we try to figure out who does. Omar? Sezer? Ania? He could be imagining the whole thing from an asylum in England. It would explain why he often winds up in cells: the small chambre, the video room, the jail. It would explain why Paris is mostly empty side-streets.
Indeed, some post-coital conversations suggest that the entire movie is in his head:
Ania: It’s not good for you here.
Tom: There is no ‘here.’
Tom: I feel like the real me is somewhere else ... and the one that’s here is like a sad double.
At the same time, this last line is eminently relatable. Most of us have felt this way. How did I wind up here? Wasn’t I due for better things? Yet here I am. We don’t have to be in mental institutions to feel this way; we just have to be human.
Me, I want Omar, Sezer and Ania to be real. I think the movie’s better this way. So, yes, Tom is in Paris. Yes, he kills Omar but doesn’t remember it. Yes, he kidnaps his daughter. That’s why he returns to Margit. He gives in to the white hot light of death/madness to protect his daughter from himself.
That’s why he does what he does with the letter, too. That’s why it’s poignant. He’s been writing it throughout the movie. It’s long. But in the end he doesn’t trust it, or himself, enough. So to protect her, to make sure she doesn’t see the world through his eyes, he throws the letter in a trash bin. Then he returns to retrieve one page, which he tears in half. That’s the one he mails. It contains two words: Love, Dad.
Movie Review: Starbuck (2011)
“Starbuck” is a small joy of a film: sweet without being cloying, gentle without being dull, and, above all, unassumingly, organically funny.
David Wozniak (Patrick Huard) is a genial bear of a middle-aged man. He’s affable, forgetful, bumbling, with a strong back, a widening middle, and a mane of dark hair. He’s the delivery driver for his father’s boucherie but can’t drive across town without getting a parking ticket. He’s dating a local police officer, Valerie (Julie LeBreton), but never invites her over because he’s growing pot in his apartment. He’s a friend to all and no one, a punchline within his own family, going nowhere and not really resenting it. Under his old warm-up jacket he wears the worn T-shirts of favorite hockey, futbol and baseball teams. He’s 42 and you get the feeling he’s been sleeping on a couch half his life. He’s been hibernating. He’s about to wake up.
He’s awakened at the start of this movie by local toughs, French-Canadian gangsters, who want the $80,000 he owes. Later that day, he discusses it sheepishly with one of his brothers at the family butcher shop.
Brother: How much do you owe?
Brother: 80 thousand?
David: When you say it with a face like that, it sounds like a lot.
Everyone else is more interested in the jerseys. David has volunteered to get the jerseys for their own futbol squad and they assume he’ll screw it up. They keep reminding him, he keeps assuring them, until finally he explodes: “I have the jerseys!” There’s a pause until one responds, matter of factly, “He obviously doesn’t have the jerseys.”
He doesn’t. Attempting to retrieve them, he gets into an argument with a man in a sportscar who has taken his parking space, and while he’s arguing the shopkeeper closes shop. He has to talk him into reopening the shop, by which point he’s got another parking ticket. But he’s got the jerseys. “They’re in the van,” he tells his friends. Cut to: the van being towed because of the parking tickets. Cut to: the taking of the team picture, with everyone but David looking annoyed, and everyone but David attired in something besides the team’s red jersey.
Then his life gets complicated.
One of the running gags in the film involves all the different people who break into his apartment. The gangsters are first. A slick lawyer is second. He informs him that during the period between 1988 and 1990, under the pseudonym “Starbuck,” David donated sperm 693 times at a local sperm bank. (We later learn he was earning money to take his Polish-immigrant parents to Italy before his mother died.) Of those donations, 533 kids were born. Of those 533, 142 are enjoined in a class-action lawsuit to overturn the sperm bank’s confidentiality agreement and uncover who he is.
Oh, and Valerie’s pregnant, too.
There are good, honest bits on the horrors of children. “Never reproduce,” his brother with a pregnant wife tells him. His lawyer and friend (Antoine Bertrand), who must contact the local bar to get his license back to take David’s case, talks about his post-parent impotence. David wonders how he can use such language in front of his kids, but his friend remains unfazed. “I can say whatever I want,” he responds. “They don’t listen to me. They don’t pick up the frequency of my voice.” Even level-headed Valerie worries about what kind of mom she will be. She sees the snotty-nosed kids at the local playground and wants to smack them around.
All of David’s kids, of course, with the exception of Valerie’s, are in their early 20s now. David is given a manila envelope with the names and stories of each. He’s told not to look at it. Being David, he can’t resist.
The first is a professional soccer player. He and his lawyer attend a game and whoop it up. The second is a would-be actor working as a barista. David takes over for him so he can make an important audition. The third is a young drug addict. David takes her to the hospital when she ODs.
In this manner, anonymously, and seeing himself less as father-figure than guardian angel, he makes contact and tries to help those who need it. He’s as curious about them as they are about him. One is a lifeguard, another is a street musician, a third is developmentally disabled and living in an institution. David follows one offspring around town, a handsome gay man seemingly meeting boyfriend after boyfriend, until he hooks up with a girl in front of a fancy hotel. David follows them inside and into a conference hall where—he slowly realizes—he’s attending a meeting the 142 children of Starbuck. By this point he’s standing, looking around in disbelief at all of the life he’s helped create, and he’s asked, by the moderator, the street musician (played by French-Canadian musician David Giguère), why he’s there and what he wants. He claims to be the adoptive father of the developmentally disabled child who can’t make it. But he bucks them all up. He tells them that they may not know their biological father but they now know half-brothers and sisters. They now have another family. Everyone applauds.
“Starbuck” has its problems. All of the characters are a little too good-hearted. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing. The gangsters, for example, have the patience to wait out the rest of the film, and break no bones, merely hold David (and then, more horrifically, his father) underwater in a bathtub. The second time they do it to David, in the midst of all his problems, he doesn’t even struggle. He seems to be thinking, “Well, this is one way out.”
Then there’s the scene with the drug addict, Julie, played by former child actress Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse. David helps her, trusts her, and the next morning she doesn’t betray that trust. Problem solved. Anyone who knows anyone who’s alcoholic or a substance abuser knows that one morning is nice, but it’s one morning.
And how did David wind up owing $80 K anyway? It’s the opening salvo that drives the rest of the film but it doesn’t fit into his T-shirt and sweatpants lifestyle. Is he a gambler? Did he sink all of that money into sports memorabilia or harebrained business schemes? How do we know he won’t do it again?
Even so, the script by Ken Scott and Martin Petit, which won the Genie Award for best French-Canadian screenplay last year, goes in interesting, unexpected directions, and it never stops being funny. Its lead, meanwhile, Patrick Huard, handsome in profile, with a bit of Gerard Depardieu in his stunned, close-set eyes, and a bit of Bill Murray in his overall slacker demeanor, is glorious.
“Starbuck” winds up celebrating what it mocks (fatherhood, for example) but in a way that never tips over into schmaltz. Its joys are small: a baby’s hand in the tip of your finger; a montage of people jumping off a dock. Its laughs are big.
Movie Review: Goodbye (2011)
The first word spoken by the protagonist of “Goodbye” is hello. Noora (Leyla Zareh) is an Iranian lawyer whose license has been suspended, and who, we learn by and and by, is pregnant and trying to leave the counry. The lawyer she’s hired has helped others escape, and he has a plan for her. She’ll give a talk abroad and then just walk away. So why do we feel the weight of her ambivalence? Why does she talk of abortion when her pregnancy, she’s told, will help her escape? Is she ambivalent about leaving Iran or being pregnant? Answers come by and by.
“By and by” is the key to “Goodbye.”
Writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof is a fan of the long, static shot, with characters moving into and out of frame, and he directs Zareh as if she’s close cousin to Catherine Deneuve at her most aloof and unknowable. If Hollywood movies are avalanches of action and suspense, “Goodbye” is a slow drip of often unreliable information. Where is her husband? Is he working in the fields in the south? Is he a journalist working against the regime? Is he a former journalist the way she’s a former lawyer, and now he’s working in the fields in the south? Either way, it beats her current job. In her dingy, gray-blue apartment, she glues together pretty boxes that a man picks up once a week.
Most of the time, though, she’s waiting, and we’re waiting out her waiting. She goes to this office, that office. She feeds her pet turtle. She gives him water. She takes him from his atrium and puts him in a pan of shallow water from which he tries to escape. She puts up a flimsy barrier of newspaper around the pan—a kind of metaphor for media blackout?—and he escapes anyway. Shame. That turtle was the most dynamic part of “Goodbye.”
Background: In 2010, Rasoulof was arrested in the same raid that nabbed fellow Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who went on to make “This Is Not a Film,” with which “Goodbye” shares much. Panahi put himself at the center of his film but otherwise both movies are Kafkaesque explorations of authoritarian limbo. Both characters are accused and await sentence or escape. Panahi’s film, being real, ends more ambivalently.
Noora’s ambivalence, it turns out, is not about leaving Iran. She often goes to the rooftop of her apartment building for a cigarette, and in the background we see airplanes taking off. Despite the jet-engine noise, she doesn’t bat an eye. She doesn’t even look at them. She betrays nothing. But this is what she wants: escape; goodbye. Near the end of the film, she tells one of her husband’s colleagues, sitting on a small park bench, “If one feels a foreigner in one’s own country, it’s best to leave it and be a foreigner in a foreign land.” Great line.
No, the weight of her ambivalence is about her baby, who has been diagnosed with Down Syndrome. She’s not sure whether to keep it. Then she’s sure she wants to keep it. After that, everything else is machination. The timing must be right. To get the money to pay off the lawyer who has her passport, she needs the deposit on her apartment. To get the deposit on her apartment, she needs to vacate a few days early. To get a hotel room in Tehran, she needs a husband. She’s like the pet turtle in the shallow pan: barriers, large and small, continue to confront her.
The night before her flight, at the Shiraz Hotel (Rasoulof was born in Shiraz), she leaves word with the front desk for a wake-up call and taxi to the airport. A mistake? We watch her cut bread for the journey. She sleeps, and dreams of a Down Syndrome child, then wakes to a knock on the door. Earlier in the film we watched her apartment being methodically searched by plainclothesmen. This time we just hear them.
Man: Open the door.
She [pause]: Who is it?
Man [pause]: Open the door.
She fetches a more formal veil to wear from her suitcase; and as she walks away and opens the door, the camera stays on the suitcase even as we hear the sounds of men arresting her and taking her away. Unfamiliar hands paw through her belongings and remove evidence. The final sound we hear is the screech of an airplane taking off—the one that doesn’t incude Noora. I thought of a spin on a Bob Dylan song: It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a plane to cry. The suitcase stays.
“Goodbye” is, I admit, a movie more interesting to write about than to watch. I almost nodded off several times during the screening. It’s a slow drip of a movie, a kind of Iranian water torture, and I wanted it to give me more. But I’m a spoiled moviegoer and a spoiled man. When Noora first says her famous line, about feeling a foreigner in one’s own country, I felt that it applied to me, too. I certainly felt similar during most of the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. But my discontent is mild, and with my fellow citizens who elect such leaders, while hers is overwhelming and with leaders who allow no opposition voices. It’s the difference between “1984” (her world) and “Brave New World” (mine).
I kept thinking of a line from E.L. Doctorow’s “The Book of Daniel”; something Daniel’s father, Paul Isaacson (read: Julius Rosenberg), tells his young son about all of the injustice in the world. “And it’s still going on, Danny,” Paul Isaacson says. “In today’s newspaper, it’s still going on. Right outside the door of this house it’s going on.” This is current events as art.
The movie begins with a hello and it ends with a goodbye, but it’s not the goodbye we wanted. Noora doesn’t escape from; she disappears into. And it’s still going on.
Movie Review: Monsieur Lazhar (2011)
“Monsieur Lazhar,” a nominee for best foreign-language film at the most recent Academy Awards, is such a gentle film, and so evocative of childhood, that I began to think it was set during my childhood. This evocation is particularly true of throwaway shots: the winter streets of Montreal at twilight; teenage boys play hockey at night under the lights. At the same time, I grew up 40 years ago. Is Canada still so innocent? Do the kids not need locks on their lockers? Do they get pint milk cartons after recess? Do they have recess? Do American kids?
The movie begins with a shock. At an elementary school in Montreal, Alice (Sophie Nélisse) reminds Simon (Émilien Néron) during recess, “Isn’t it your turn for the milk?” We don’t know what that is yet, “the milk,” but writer-director Philippe Falardeau is precise in his details: Simon, on his way, knocking the hat off a fat schoolmate, being chastised by another teacher but pleading “the milk” and allowed to continue; loading up a plastic milk crate with pint-sized containers from a small refrigerator and carrying the thing clumsily to his locker, where he removes hat, jacket, scarf, mittens, picks up the crate again, balances it with one arm as he tries to enter the classroom, and finds the door locked. He looks in, cupping his hand over his eye, then stumbles back in shock, dropping everything. In the classroom, his teacher, Martine Lachance (Héléna Laliberté), is hanging from a rope. Dead.
Other teachers scamper to herd the kids back outside before they glimpse what Simon glimpsed (one, Alice, gets through), which, it turns out, is what they do for much of the rest of the movie: attempt to hide the fact of death and suicide from the kids. One of the first administrative acts is indicative: they paint the walls of the classroom from dull yellow to dull gray. It’s a thin, unwelcome veneer.
Into the post-suicide chaos, the title character, Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), arrives. He’s Algerian, taught in Algeria for 19 years, and brings a gentle but old-school spirit to the classroom. The desks are in a semicircle? He puts them in regimented rows. Dictation lessons? Here’s Balzac. He chastises Simon for taking his photo without permission, then slaps him upside the head for insulting another student. When informed that touching the students, let alone hitting them, isn’t allowed, he lies about hitting Simon.
Montreal le slush
Most teachers in these types of movies are human but heroic. Think Robin Williams in “Dead Poet’s Society,” Morgan Freeman in “Lean On Me,” Meryl Streep and Michelle Pfeiffer and Edward James Olmos in their various films. Think confrontation scenes and uplifting, swelling music. Monsieur Lazhar is human but a fake. In Algeria, he was a civil servant and restaurateur, not a teacher. His wife taught. She also wrote a progressive book that was condemned by Islamic authorities and the family had to flee. Bachir preceded them to Canada. The night before his wife and kids were to join him, they died in a fire. Arson suspected.
Bachir isn’t even a citizen. He’s struggling to stay in the country as a political refugee, but the government has doubts about his story. It thinks Algeria is back to normal now. “Algeria is never completely normal,” Bachir responds, quiet and perplexed.
Lazhar may be a fake teacher but he’s genuine. He’s fussy and a little nervous. He’s scrupulous in manner. He wants the kids to learn. He has nightmares that, because he didn’t do his job correctly, they’ll become grown-ups but speak as children. That could describe our entire culture, by the way.
He plays favorites. Alice, adorable, looking a bit like Anna Chlumsky 20 years ago, is smart and curious. She looks up Algeria online and thinks it’s beautiful: all white and blue. He tells her it’s called Alger la blanche. She dismisses her city thus, Montreal le slush, but he tells how he was stunned by its greenness when he first arrived. When Alice’s mother, an airline pilot, shows up, he admits Alice is his favorite.
He also wishes to confront, rather than cover up, the tragedy that began the film. In this way he butts heads with worried administrators and reticent parents, but, again, this is not a Hollywood wish-fulfillment story. The administrators, led by Ms. Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), as well as the other teachers, aren’t bad folks. They’re overworked, underpaid, understaffed. They’re like all of us, mixed bags, and our opinion on them keeps shifting. One of Lazhar’s fellow teachers, the enthusiastic and attractive Claire (Brigette Poupart), is actually kind of annoying, and thinks too highly of her African travels, while the macho gym teacher, who warns Lazhar that they live in a “woman-curacy,” and whom the students dismiss as someone who probably can’t even read, has some nice lines on the difficulty of teaching kids the pummel horse without touching them. “We now treat kids like they’re radioactive waste,” he says.
More to the point, Bachir doesn’t win. In the clash with a sensitive modern culture, it’s not even a contest. There are no “Captain, my captain” moments, no marches down to the jail cell, no final victories as the music swells. In his class, by chance, he gets the kids to open up about their former teacher’s death, which helps two of them: Simon, who blamed himself for the suicide, and Alice, who blamed Simon. “Don't try to find a meaning in Martine's death,” he tells the students. “There isn't one.”
The Tree and the Chrysalis
But for this act he’s investigated, his past is discovered, and he’s fired. He pleads to stay the rest of the day, to say good-bye to the kids. Oddly, we don’t see this good-bye. The class is studying fables, and they’re all supposed to write their own, including Bachir. We see him read his to the class. You could call it “The Tree and the Chrysalis.” Earlier in the year he taught them that word, “chrysalis,” whose metaphoric overtones for 11- and 12-year-old kids are obvious. “Commes vous,” he says of the stage between caterpillar and butterfly.
In his fable, things don’t go well. The tree tries to protect the chrysalis, but a storm and a fire damages it. The butterfly that emerges isn’t the same.
The movie ends well by ending quietly. While in voiceover we hear Bachir complete his fable, we watch Alice, on his last day, get her things from her locker, then return to the classroom. She’s obviously distraught, losing her favorite teacher, and displays a kind of abject vulnerability by dropping all her things. He hugs her. The fable he tells is sad, the various tragedies of life are sad, but the true sadness of the film is this. It’s in every step we take that leaves more behind. It’s in all of our good-byes. The film offers no uplift, no final victory. Writer-director Philippe Falardeau knows we don’t need swelling music to make our hearts swell.