Film School: Monsieur Lazhar

Film School: Monsieur Lazhar
Marie-Eve Beauregard and Mohamed Fellag in Monsieur Lazhar
This is a terribly timely film. Its subject matter – suicide, trauma, violence, asylum seeking – is not comfortable, and yet all you will take away from Monsieur Lazhar is warmth, because it has a very humane way of approaching the terrors of life.

Perhaps this is because its characters are mostly children, whose little faces appear in close-ups just like school photographs. I would like to think so – because in an industry that has in the past ten years attempted to steal away from childhood, turning kids into adults (and not good ones), this film could be redemptive. A turning point. With French sub-titles.  

"Everyone thinks we're traumatized, but it's the adults who are," says the precocious young Marie-Frédérique (Marie-Eve Beauregard), at which point we begin to think seriously about the ways in which adults use children as scapegoats for framing their own worlds.

In snowy, slushy, yellow-y Montreal ("Montreal le Slush"), Canada, a troubled primary school teacher, Martine, has hung herself before the day's classes commence. We glimpse Martine's image through the door, as do two of the children.

Her class of 11 and 12-year-olds (and one 13-year-old) are now left teacher-less and under great stress, so a psychologist (Nicole-Sylvie Lagarde) is called in to meet with them on a regular basis as the school principal, Ms. Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), attempts to hold the forte. She does so ably, with grace, humour, intelligence and a not-infrequent cigarette.

Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) turns up in Vaillancourt's office, his resume at the ready, and while at first unreceptive to his crazy proposition, she appoints him to the vacant role immediately. She is desperate, for who would want to work at the school now?

As we soon learn, Bachir, who learns of the incident in the newspaper, is not quite who he assumes to be, at least in a professional sense. But he has a back-story that makes him the perfect antidote to the children's confusion and grief. And they, in turn, give him a purpose beyond his personal pain. He makes the perfect substitute.

He orders their desks into rows, restoring order to the freshly painted classroom, and stays back when they go home to put red pen to their papers. But Martine remains the white elephant in the room – the lingering image of her hanging by a scarf from a pipe etched into the minds of two of the pupils, but a ghost for the rest of the class (one girl, we are informed, is so traumatized she changes schools).

Bachir observes his students' behaviour in the playground, as well as in classroom where his favourite student, the cherubic Alice L'Écuyer (Sophie Nélisse), delivers a talk on violence. The reaction is mixed. He wills for his pupils to open up a dialogue in class about Martine's death, but this is the domain of the psychologist who dismisses him from the room during her sessions. No, he will not be allowed to distribute Alice's paper.

As teacher, Bachir wishes to create a microcosm within his classroom's walls where nothing is out of bounds, for this is his world, the natural course of life, though it shouldn't be so. Years before, his whole family (a wife and two daughters) were murdered by terrorists in Algeria, after the book she published was condemned (notably, Fellag himself was on a hit list in Tunisia). The family had planned to flee with Bashir pathing the way and his wife finishing the school year.

His wife was a teacher; he was a civil servant and restauranteur turned political refugee. "Algeria is never completely normal," he says when questioned about the authenticity of his asylum-seeking plea. His students will never know of this. For her part, though she discovers the true nature of his identity, principal Vaillancourt is valiant in her new teacher's defence, turning a blind eye to his lack of formal residency until it becomes plain that his time at the school is up, as is her own.

In a risk-averse society, Marie-Frédérique's uptight parents chastise Bachir for his suggestion that she should be less rigid. "Don't try to parent our child," they rebuke him, questioning his methodology which has, in fact, helped his students to excel in their school work. In a world without borders, this is a film about the boundaries we wish to keep in place. Bashir is encouraged, at least, by Alice's mother for being a solid, comforting presence for her daughter in her own absence.

The film is a critique of an educational system that lacks compassion, but where bending the rules might do well in some circumstances. It speaks of the elevation of the psychological profession above the domain of the average teacher whose own life experience perhaps gives them lessons worthwhile imparting to their young charges, with whom they have a special relationship, but also of adults seeking meaning through children.

Monsieur Lazhar also challenges the conception that children are resilient – that may be so, but the scars are quite obvious and the curriculum fails to adequately address their needs, so Bachir is left to fill in the gaps in a crafty way while another teacher stages a creative historical play and fills her room with colour and objects, including potted plants that need attending to. 

"We handle kids like radioactive waste," says P.E. teacher Gaston (Jules Philip) in a staff meeting. "Touch them and you get burned." We soon learn why this is a particularly pointy issue. 

It transpires that Simon (Émilien Néron) was at the receiving end of a hug from Martine, who tutored him after hours and had her reported for misconduct. It just so happens that Simon was designated to deliver the milk on the day Martine took her life; hence, in his mind and that of Alice, he is a guilty party to her death. "She would have known," Simon says as he sobs uncontrollably. 

Until now, he has taken his latent anger out on another child in the playground. Bachir alone is able to tell Simon that Martine had been very unwell for quite some time and assures him with a gentle placing of hands on his shoulders that he is not to blame. Bachir learns to abide in the rules, but despises them still, all the while grappling with the bureaucracy in his application for asylum and permanent residency. 

"Don't try to find meaning in Martine's death, because there isn't one," he offers to his class, giving them permission to close the book and move on.

Perhaps this is a discouraging comment, as the children will observe the natural passing of animals, of grandparents, of relatives in their own worlds. Folk tales shared in the classroom help with context, particularly the story of "the tree and the chrysalis", lending beautiful words to difficult themes and a resonant sense of hope but also despair – for, in this story, the butterfly does not get away unscathed.

Director Philippe Falardeau handles his subject matter with delicacy. From the awkward but sweet interaction between Bashir and a charismatic female teacher, to the invitation of the children to include him in their school photograph, the protagonist is an endearing picture of what a teacher can be to children and the hopeful lasting impression that one might make in order to counteract their disadvantages, discord and disenchantment.

On one hungry child's desk, he places a muesli bar and banana. Bachir Lazhar gives his pupils lessons in Balzac, but so much more than that. He becomes their servant rather than their master.

Monsieur Lazhar is Falardeau's adaptation of Evelyne de la Cheneliere's play Bashir Lazhar. It is playing in select cinemas now.

Girl With a Satchel