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7 May 2013

Monsieur Lazhar (2011)

2011
Directed by: Philippe Falardeau
Music: Martin Léon
Starring: Mohamed Felag, Sophie Nelisse, Émilien Néron, 
Danielle Proulx, Brigitte Poupart, Jules Philip
Once in a while, you come across a film by accident. You have never heard of it before, but you pick it up because it seems interesting. This was one such. My husband picked it up from our local library, and I must say that I'm a bit ashamed that I hadn't heard of a film that was one of the final five nominees for the Oscars in the Best Foreign Film category that year. Unfortunately, it ran up against A Separation. In any other year, I think, this would definitely have been an Academy Award winner. 

It is just another day for the school children, who are playing outside one winter morning, until it is time for the morning bell. One 6th grade student, Simon (Émilien Néron), is reminded by his friend Alice L'Écuyer (Sophie Nelisse) that it is his turn to collect the morning milk from the school refrigerator. 
 
And so, Simon runs off to do so, only to discover that their teacher, Martine Lachance, has decided to kill herself in the classroom. Simon, and Sophie, who also peers into the locked classroom before she is rushed outside by a teacher, are traumatised by what they see, even as the other students struggle with their grief at the death of a much-loved teacher.
Unfortunately, the school cannot think of anything to help the children move forward from this experience, except to bring in a professional counsellor. They remove the late teacher's belongings from the classroom, and repaint the room but the teacher's spirit continues to loom large over them. 
 
It is under these rather unsavoury circumstances that the school, desperate to find a substitute teacher, is offered the services of an Algerian immigrant, Bazhir Lazhar. Having read of the teacher's suicide in the papers, he offers to teach at the school in whatever position the principal, Madame Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx) deems fit. 
He is a Canadian resident, he assures her, and he has been a teacher for 19 years in his native land. Desperate to find someone eligible, she hires him on the spot. 

His first lesson is not quite a success. The children are still suffering from the shock of losing their teacher, and his dictation of Balzac's Le Peau de Chagrin leaves the children bewildered. 
 
The children find his methods strange. He rearranges the desks into regular rows, gives them dictation, and enforces discipline in a manner that is verboten. Yet, despite the cultural chasm between his students and him, he begins to draw closer to his students. There is something hidden in his past that makes him attuned to the children's feelings. Attempting to draw them out, he is warned that the 'experts' will talk about death, and grief. He should concentrate on teaching. He had already run into problems when he smacks a child on his back for being naughty in class.

In today's touchy, over-protective culture, there is zero tolerance for touch, warns Madame Vaillancourt. Teachers in schools have to remember - no physical contact. They are not allowed to hug a young child even if he is crying. How this works to the detriment of the students is evident when the gym teacher remarks that he can no longer teach the kids to use the pommel horse; so all he does is to make the children run around the gym, leading them to think he is an idiot.  


As it turns out, Monsieur Lazhar is not a teacher at all. Neither is he a legal resident. Applying for refugee status, it turns out that his wife and children were murdered in Algeria; it is this trauma that makes him sensitive to the children's needs to express their grief. 
So when Alice uses a class assignment to write about her unresolved grief at her teacher's death and her inexplicable decision to end her life at school, or when Simon is found in possession of a disturbing photograph of the dead teacher, or when Victor (Vincent Millard) mentions that his grandfather committed suicide (but they knew why), Monsieur Lazhar is sensitive to the confusion and pain that his students feel over an unexplained incident that traumatises their young lives. 
Yet, he is consistently told that he should not make waves. That the grief counsellor would deal with the children, that he doesn't know the culture of the place that he is in, or anything at all about the teacher who died. But when the children themselves bring up the topic, he is loath to shut them up. Especially when it turns out that many of the children blame Simon for the teacher's death, and more disturbingly, he blames himself.  
 
Monsieur Lazhar deal with losses of many different kinds - through death, through exile, through grief. Based on Bashir Lazhar, a one-character play by Évelyne de la Chenelière (who also appears in a cameo as Alice's mother), director Philippe Falardeau added in the sub-plot about Simon to develop the story further. The film deals with death, and its denial. When tragedy strikes, we are wont to push it under the carpet, not talking about it, hoping that the less that is said, the sooner everything will be back to 'normal'. As one of the students, Marie-Frédérique (Marie-Ève Beauregard), says in the film, "It is not we who are traumatised. It is the adults."
 
As the children come to terms with death in their own ways, it is their teacher, Monsieur Lazhar, who travels that journey with them. It is his unspoken empathy for what they are going through that leads them to spontaneously bring the topic up for discussion. It is he who inspires them to think their way out of their grief, and it is he who provides the support that they need, whether it is Simon being told that it is not his fault that Martine died, or Alice who, at the end of the film needs a hug. In fact, she not only needs a hug, she asks for one. It is a lovely (and ironic) shot - it is a hug that set the train of events that culminated in Martine's suicide in motion. 
 
For Alice to hug the (male) teacher therefore, is an overt act of resistance, an act that is at once taboo and a transgression in today's society. In that one moment is the realisation of how important it is for a child to have an adult she can trust. 
 
Directed with an honesty and a subtlety that does not allow for an outpouring of emotion but is still powerful nevertheless, Monsieur Lazhar does not end on an 'all is well' ending that Hollywood likes to promote. The ends are not tied up in lovely pink bows and rainbows, but like the rest of the film, there is a sense that this is how it must be, and a quiet hope that everyone will move on, now that they have actually said goodbye - which Martine, the disturbed teacher failed to do. Some things are indeed meant to end before their time, and Philippe Falardeau deals with them with compassion, restraint and understanding.
The acting is excellent, both from the students and the supporting cast (the headmistress Madame Vaillancourt, Monsieur Lazhar's colleague Claire (Brigitte Poupart, and the gym teacher Gaston (Jules Philip) should be specifically mentioned) and mostly from Mohamed Felag as Bazhir Lazhar. He is an unassuming character trying to make the best of a horrible situation - he has already lost his wife and children to violent death; by the end of the film, he has also lost his country. He is dealing not only with grief but also unsympathetic immigration officials who keep bringing up the deaths of his family. In his quietness, one sees both deep mourning and quiet acceptance of his plight. 
Sophie Nelisse is a revelation as Alice, the young girl who has an older-than-her-age understanding of matters that should be beyond her ken. Her face and eyes do the talking as she reads out, unemotionally, her essay about the death of her teacher. She raises the most pertinent questions about that death, and is easily the voice of the children. Articulate and emotional, she understands and is able to lay bare her emotions in a way that makes us understand how much we misunderstand or ignore what our children comprehend about death. 

Émilien Néron shines as Simon, the boy troubled by his teacher's death and his seeming responsibility for her actions. His final breakdown is as much a shock as it is a catharsis - not only for him but for everyone else. The taboo against discussing the tragedy has been broken, and it is easier now to deal with what is in the open than hide it as a shameful secret that must be talked about only in hushed whispers. 

What I liked about the film was that the reason for the teacher's suicide is never revealed. It is not important. What is important is that she died by her own hand, and that it affected her colleagues and her students and even the substitute teacher in myriad ways. The grief that is felt, the questions that are raised, the emotions that are evoked all rise organically from the narrative and the acting, and not once is the audience manipulated to feel a certain way - we become a part of the narrative that is playing out in front of us, and what emotions we feel grow out of a shared experience. The ending is as humorous and bitter-sweet as the rest of the film, the only way a movie such as this could have ended.

23 comments:

  1. Oh, this sounds so wonderful. I love movies that show children the way children really are - neither little adults, nor imbeciles with the IQ (or EQ) of a deficient jelly fish. This one, I think, is going to be one I will like. Now if only I could find the time to watch it (I still haven't even got around to watching The Cup). :-(

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  2. Oh, you will like this, Madhu. I guarantee it! It's a happy-sad film and treated so well. As you said, these children were just that - kids, with their own level of maturity and understanding, and an emotional world that is barely comprehended by the adults in their lives. Do, do push this up on your 'to-watch' list. (Yes, I know...WDYGTT?)

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  3. This did move a lot!
    Thanks for the review Anu.
    In a world with more and more uncovering of paedophily cases. It has become difficult to relate to children in a normal way. Few years I heard somewhere that the priests are not allowed to touch the children anymore. I understand that there is the danger that a child might get abused, but withholding affection from a child is not going to help it much too.
    Few years back, I was at a friends place and there were some children, their own and their neighbours and I was playing with them and very soon like children normally are they started horsing around. You know like hugging me, pulling me to the floor, climbing over me. That was the moment I realised,how much the news in the media had affected me as well. I looked at the parents, like asking if it is okay. They laughed naturally! And then it was okay for me.
    I mean it was never a problem for me before that. Never thought about it that people might think otherwise or so. But the reports in the newspapers had done their job. I had built up my walls already!

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  4. I agree, Harvey, and it is sad that we cannot touch anyone even innocently/affectionately any more without feeling the undercurrents of paedophilia/sexual harassment, etc. And I think it is worse for men today. :( Everything they do or say is under so much scrutiny. We have a friend who is a professor; he used to say that even innocently complimenting a female colleague on her dress was fraught with tension. (So he didn't at all.)

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  5. Somewhere in the region of -100? ;-)

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  6. {grin} You are being too kind.

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  7. Like Harvey says this film indeed strikes a chord, I wonder whether I saw bits and pieces of it, I may have,it sounds familiar. This film reminds me of what recently happened to a male maths teacher at one of South Mumbai's girls schools. He was a revered teacher, some of his students are well-known names now and they all swear by him. They say he is an exellent teacher and human being but everything came crashing down for this gentleman when he patted his 14 year old female student just to encourage her. According to reoorts he was pulled up and he had to resign besides he soon found students dropping out from his tuition class. I saw several readers' letters, these were his students, they were shocked at their favourite teacher, who made maths a fun subject , having to face such humiliation. I felt quite sad at reading these letters. So I think the film has touched upon a very important subject.

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  8. As soon as I read your review, I dashed off to find it online - and I did!!! With subtitles.

    I'm absolutely taken up with the children - so so normal. The class room situation too. I mean, a blackboard and all (or was it green). Their drama practice :-)

    And Baschir. What lovely expressions and body language. Loved his old fashioned methods of teaching - and how well the children responded. Loved Alice bringing a book for dictation which would be better than what she had. :-)

    I don't know why Martinè committed suicide. Simon's behaviour may have been very bad, but..... it can't have been. But commiting it in classroom on Thursday (Simon's day for bringing milk????)

    I would give the link here, but I can't give links on your blog. Disqus doesn't like it.
    Or I'll post this comment and then try to post the link in a separate comment.
    As for the modern attitudes about children - I always think of Kabuliwala, and those innocent times.

    It's a situation of throwing the baby with the bath water. But how to separate the bath water is also not easy, I guess.

    Thank you Anu. This is the second film, the other was 'the Cup', which I watched immediately after reading your review. They both touched a cord, and I had to watch them.

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  9. I've sent you a mail, Anu.

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  10. Thanks, pacifist. So here goes, for anyone who wants to catch this movie online - it is available here. (Disclaimer: I do not know the legalities of the site; this is just for informative purposes.)

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  11. Yes it is Mr Nandakumar. By the way if pacifist gives you the link please post it here for I couldn't find the film. I would like to see it.

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  12. The link she gave me is in my response to her, Shilpi. I'm not sure if it is a legal site, though. I'm wary about such sites, but if she watched it there, I guess it should be free of malware.

    It is available here on YouTube, though that is a pay-for-view link.

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  13. Thanks Anu but besides being pay-for-view, it is not available for viewing here. Anyway, thanks all the same.

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  14. I don't know about malware. I watch a lot of films this way, and have had no problems.

    My computer tells me otherwise, and at times won't even let me go there.

    I guess a good anti virus etc programme helps

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  15. :( Sorry. The other link that pacifist gave may work. I don't usually download films or watch unless it is on YouTube, so I'm the wrong person to ask about films online.

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  16. I guess so, pacifist. Like I said, I'm wary. I once crashed my hard drive just by clicking on a link - I didn't even watch the film. :( Lost everything that hadn't been backed up on an external hard drive. I had to reformat my disc.


    So, now I don't watch movies online unless it is on YouTube. Or Veoh, maybe. And Windows is good at keeping me from opening troublesome sites.

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  17. N.Venkataraman11 May 2013 at 08:28

    Anuji,

    My son who is with me for the weekend wanted to watch a movie after lunch. I remembered reading two reviews one by you on Monsieur Lazhar few days back and the other one by Madhuji on Plein Soleil two days back. I was impressed by the well written review on Monsieur Lazhar and enjoyed reading
    it and decided to watch it. Both of us enjoyed the movie.

    I liked the film for exploring some troubling aspects of today’s society. One, the tendency to restrict children from sharing their frank feelings. Children are children and should be allowed to express their unadulterated feelings instead of burdening them with our pre-conceived notions. On many occasions we find their pure thoughts very refreshing and educative.
    I will like to share an incident involving a 6 year old child who is undergoing
    treatment for neuroblastoma. His father was upset over the damage of his crystal which he used during his prayers and his wife and daughter were
    facing the music. This little child came up to his father and gently asked him
    what was there in that crystal, the damage of which has disturbed him so much.The father replied politely that it was presented to him by somebody whose relationship he valued a lot. The child remained silent for a few seconds pondering over his father’s reply and asked back ‘Is the crystal more precious than his relationship with his (the child’s) mother and sister?’ We underestimate children’s ability to react to traumatic and touchy situations.

    Secondly, the universal policy of forbidding teachers (and even other adults) from touching children by way of hugging, patting etc. There may be instance of pedophile cases, but is it so rampant so as to necessitate such action? Frankly speaking I am not sure. We were brought-up in a culture where such comforting hugs and appreciative pats were quite normal. Neither the children felt bad (or taught to believe that it was bad) nor I believe that the adults had any perverse motives. A few exceptions may be found and exceptions are exceptions.

    In the end it all boils down to proper upbringing, healthy relationship and inclusive and supportive society. This movie addresses these issues in a simple but emphatic way and touches the right chords.

    Thank you Anuji.

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  18. Thank you, Mr Venkatraman. You've made my day. :)


    I'm so glad that both you and your son enjoyed this film. You are right that because we were brought up in a culture where touch was so natural, it seems so natural to hug or pat a child appreciatively. I agree that with sexual harassment and paedophilia, one needs to be cautious, but surely we needn't (as pacifist says) throw the baby out with the bathwater? Today, all we need is an accusation, and the witch hunt begins. :(

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  19. Definitely sounds interesting and something that must be watched; must confess have a mildly morbid fascination for philosophical stuff on death and this looks a bit on those lines though I'm not able to make out whether this will make one happier or sadder.


    After the Delhi incident and all the happenings that you see in the media, can't be surprised by the reactions to women/girl safety. And now being a parent of a little daughter, sometimes the mind does take a scary thought. But yes, all this paranoia is discouraging even physical contact - something natural is being suppressed because of the fear of an extreme situation.


    All these movies going by and I'm watching, nothing (sighs!). Some days, maybe a couple of years later, I will get back to watching movies regularly but till that time, it is hide and watch them once a while, when I'm permitted to:)

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  20. It doesn't leave you sad, anyway, though 'happy' is not what I felt after I watched it, though. You are left with a sense of satisfaction at the ending - this is how it will be in real life; and a sense of wistfulness for another kind of ending - the all-is-well kind.



    As far as women's safety is concerned, there is caution, and there's paranoia. Today, a witch hunt is more likely to happen because of all the hype, and in the meantime, crime against women goes on rampantly. It's a dichotomy of society.



    As for time, file this under WDIGTT? (Where do I get the time?) as we all do. For what it is worth, I just saw Beautiful last month. Two years after it was released - not bad. :)

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  21. Yeah, even I hoped that at some point it won't turn into a suspense farce, 'why did she die'. And apart from that, there were several moments where it cud have fallen into the trap of melodrama, but didn't

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  22. Hey! Good to see you back. Yes, the complete lack of melodrama was so refreshing, and it made the film so much more poignant, than if the director had tried to manipulate our emotions.

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