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.