Monsieur Lazhar and the deathly hollows
Oscar nominated Monsieur Lazhar comes to the UK from the mind of director Philippe Falardeau and presents a tender view of the impact that sudden, tragic death can make. Set largely in a Montreal primary school, this bittersweet tale relies on some great child performances and a touchingly sympathetic turn from Mohamed Fellag’s eponymous teacher.
Within Monsieur Lazhar’s opening minutes, a school teacher’s classroom suicide sends shockwaves through staff and students alike. With the discovery being made by the troubled Simon (Émilien Néron), it becomes clear that this won’t be an easy journey for anyone involved. A week later, an Algerian national, Bachir Lazhar, offers his services to take over the traumatised class. Despite headmaster Ms Vaillancourt’s (Danielle Proulx) insistence that things don’t work that way- that procedures must be followed, it turns out that, for some reason, things actually do work that way. It’s easy to give this moment a free pass, but unsurprisingly, this decision will prove to bite Vaillancourt in the backside. In the meantime, Lazhar’s approach to the children takes some warming up. Fellag’s charm makes him immediately likable, both to the audience and the characters. His methods may be rigid and unrealistic, but Fellag projects a genuine desire to help heal his students’ psyches. As it turns out ,it’s not just the students who are struggling to come to terms with a heart-breaking loss.
Monsieur Lazhar illustrates the common ground found in how people cope with an unexpected death of a loved one. It argues that children experience it no differently than adults and require the same opportunities to work through their grief that grown-ups do. Yet the irony of Lazhar encouraging his pupils to open up whilst remaining tip-lipped himself does not go unnoticed. Monsieur Lazhar doesn’t pretend to have answers, but rather aims to illustrate that when bereaved, regardless of age, we all desperately seek them. There are no particularly happy endings here, just characters attempting to do the right thing during trying times. Monsieur Lazhar succeeds at being deeply humanising without the pretense of suggesting easy solutions. Nor does the film play down to its young characters. As does Lazhar himself, Monsieur Lazhar treats them with a great amount of respect and maturity, never dumbing itself down for their benefit or for the viewers’.
The casting is one of Monsieur Lazhar’s strongest points. Fellag does a genuinely wonderful job as the wounded but optimistic school teacher. There’s no doubting his appeal as his colleagues and students take to him. He also creates a terrific rapport with Sophie Nélisse’s Alice, who quickly becomes the teacher’s pet. Nélisse too does a great job on her end, in the type of demanding role not typically asked of child actors. The pacing of Monsieur Lazhar, however, may be its clearest flaw. Despite being just over 90 minutes, it feels significantly longer. The plot hints at greater drama before pulling back and returning to its more obvious course. So while Falardeau’s work has a great core, it would provide a more gripping experience if it delved a little deeper into the supporting characters it introduces.
Monsieur Lazhar may be a bit rough around the edges but it is a story with loads of heart and humanity. By no means a feel-good film, it is rather, a gentle example of how the pain and problems death inflicts upon us does not discriminate by age. Getting the most out of his superb cast, Falardeau conveys his message without complicating matters. It’s just a good thing for him that it’s so easy to land a teaching job in Montreal. 8/10