Films about teachers and students are commonly inspirational melodramas about overcoming adversity inside and outside the classroom. The teacher is usually a newcomer to the school and initially dismissed by the students, but over the course of 90 minutes or so they wind up touching each other’s lives and all that mushy stuff. It’s a formula audiences are comfortable with. Writer-director Philippe Falardeau‘s Monsieur Lazhar breaks this mold and delivers a haunting look at grief, compassion, and boundaries through the eyes of both children and adults, while also examining the bureaucratic problems in contemporary teaching. Hit the jump for my review of Monsieur Lazhar on DVD.
Based on the one-man play by Évelyne de la Cheneliere, Monsieur Lazhar begins with a shock. A boy named Simon (Émilien Néron) returns from recess to discover his teacher, Martine, has hung herself. Her swaying corpse is seen by one other student, Alice (Sophie Nélisse), before the rest of the students are quickly herded back out onto the playground. The headmistress of the school brings in a psychologist for the students, but refuses to dwell on the tragedy – offering the children no outlet for their confused grief. No teachers want to fill Martine’s shoes, however, seeing the devastated class as a potential emotional firestorm.
Enter Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian who claims to have years of teaching experience. He’s hired and from day one it’s clear that not only has Lazhar not taught a day in his life, but it almost seems like he’s never interacted with a child before. He asks them to read Balzac on the first day for cryin’ out loud! The students take to him fast though and as days go by we learn more details about Lazhar’s personal tragedies and loss. Like the children he’s now responsible for, Lazhar too is in need of a safe haven.
Fellag, a well-known comedian in his native Algeria, delivers an understated performance that miraculously brings forth the humor in all this mournful subject matter. Lazhar’s awkward interactions with his student’s philistine parents make for some of the funniest moments. But when all of the past tragedies boil to the surface in the classroom, Lazhar delivers a crushing and powerfully dramatic oration to his students. He reads them a fable he wrote that addresses the loss in his own life, as well as the suicide of Martine. It’s an incredible moment and a well-deserved emotional relief after all of the silent tension concerning Martine.
Good child actors are hard to come by, but Falardeau knocked it out of the park with the casting of Nélisse and Néron. The two carry the burden of seeing Martine hang as well as the possible reason she did it. It’s a secret that weighs them down, preventing them from healing. Alice, who Lazhar admits is his favorite student, presents an essay before the class on violence. Without specifically mentioning Martine, she manages to express what’s on everyone’s minds.
Monsieur Lazhar is an honest simple film that nicely balances melancholy with humor. A doleful moment concerning suicide is counteracted with a Rice Krispies gag, for example. The film delivers an affective message of compassion without any kind of sweeping, artificial sentimentality – a welcome deviation in the library of teacher-student films.
Music Box Films presents Monsieur Lazhar in 2.35 widescreen with a Dolby 5.1 track. The film varies between wintery blues and rich earth tones. Fellag’s caterpillar eyebrows really pop. “From Stage to Screen” is a 30 minute look at adapting the play with the cooperation of the playwright. In the original play, Lazhar is the only character, so they discuss their concerns and approach with writing in the students and parents. “Alice and Simon Audition Tapes” cuts together Nélisse and Néron’s audition footage with scenes from the film. Like I mentioned earlier, these kids’ acting chops are ridiculous for such a young age. “Big Talk with Philippe Falardeau” is an Q&A with the filmmaker that is sadly light on insight. The disc also includes full texts of Alice’s essay and Lazhar’s fable. There’s really only one worthwhile feature, “From Stage to Screen,” but it’s still a nice package.