Monsieur Lazhar should make us all proud
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
I think most of us have become used to the well-portrayed emotional suffering of adults in theatre, cinema and on TV. Yes, we will weep and we will feel it and try to avoid absorbing it on anything but an intellectual level. But when it comes to the well-portrayed emotional suffering of children, I am never prepared...I am always devastated.
Films like Ponette... This close-up portrait of a toddler's coming to terms with her mother's death still pierces me. When I see even just a clip from it, I'm a mess. I thought of avoiding Rebelle (War Witch), a searing film about child-warriors because I knew exactly what I would get: a decade's-length of unpleasant images glued to my brain.
A class full of primary school kids have lost their beloved teacher to a suicide (she hanged herself in the classroom).
And, yes, I am coming late to the party with Monsieur Lazhar (an adaptation of Evelyne de la Chenilière's play, Bashir Lazhar). There are a lot reasons for this. I live in the city where it was filmed which would make its story all the more familiar. My grand-nieces and nephews are the age of the children of the story. Film-maker Philippe Falardeau has always delighted me by just how lucid and accomplished his films are (from his first, La moitié gauche du frigo to his last, C'est pas moi, je le jure) and I had no doubt he would deliver something profound. And, finally, my mother was taken away from me when I was barely 13 and the idea of children trying to deal with the loss of a loved one hits me where I live. (Oh! God! Ponette...)
But, finally, I watched. (It is in rotation on the movie networks.)
The story is simplicity itself. A class full of primary school kids have lost their beloved teacher to a suicide (she hanged herself in the classroom). An eager Algerian immigré takes over the class. We learn he too has a tragedy to deal with.
Falardeau expanded de la Chenelière's play beyond the title character to include the children only discussed in the play. And fully-fleshed characters they are! Principle among them are the two kids who saw the swinging body: Sophie (Alice l'Écuyer) and Simon (Émilien Néron). The two young actors won Jutras (Québec's Oscars) and it is because of their eyes. They pass back and forth between being silly and funny kids (Néron has his smartass - ti-cul - persona down pat) and haunted by that image of the dead teacher.
But they are matched for character-completeness by Mohamed Fellag as Lazhar. You love him the moment you see him - that glowing face you simply like and, again, the eyes.
Indeed, there are no false notes in this cast. I very much liked, too, Danielle Proulx who played the school principal (I liked her in CRAZY as well...actually, I always like her).
Falardeau delivers a film that is as crystalline-lovely as his others - the photography is straightforward, the palette muted, the images instantly create an intimacy with a Canadian audience. We know these places, we know how they look each season. We know the clothes people wear. And one more thing: a friend who works with teachers and children even pointed out how absolutely correct is the way teachers in the film handle groups of kids. (Tossing back and forth between the singular and plural tu/vous.)
Falardeau has become one of our great film-makers, not for his cinematographic ambitions (read: budgets) but for his emotional ones. His films - by plan or by fiscal restraints - are profoundly human.
And this one is, needless to say, particularly devastating.