Film review: Monsieur Lazhar

Monsieur Lazhar, directed by Phillippe Falardeau
Monsieur Lazhar, directed by Phillippe Falardeau
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THERE are few genres to dread more than the teaching movie. More often than not, it’s a double period on Ways to Inspire that leaves you with fresh sympathy for Mr Gradgrind’s “just the facts” despotism in Dickens’ Hard Times.

Monsieur Lazhar (12A)

Director: Philippe Falardeau

Running time: 94 minutes

Rating: ****

At first glance, Monsieur Lazhar is another tick in the register, as 11-year-old Simon (Émilien Néron) unenthusiastically drops off pupils’ milk packs during break. At his own classroom, he finds his teacher’s body hanging from a steampipe in the ceiling. The rest of the movie is about the fallout from this.

The teachers shoo the kids away, but Simon’s hardy friend Alice (Sophie Nélisse) nips back to check out the scene for herself. A grief counsellor is called, the teachers try to shut down further conversation about suicide, and the room is redecorated. However, it’s harder to paint over the emotional cracks – and no-one wants to be the replacement teacher. Eventually the headmistress (Danielle Proulx) is forced to hire an obvious outsider to take over the class.

Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) is one of only three male teachers in the school, and a recent immigrant to Montreal from Algeria. The kids are polite enough, but bemused by his formal manner, his odd French and a quixotic approach to their curriculum. It’s almost as if he’s never been in a classroom before; basic regulations have to be explained, such as the rule against touching pupils, either in restraint or support. “We treat kids as if they are radioactive waste,” explains the gym teacher.

Lazhar has his own taboos, refusing to discuss his move to Canada, but in defiance of the school he addresses the kids’ tragedy, finding common ground by inventing and teaching fables that contain coded comforts.

It’s a subtle meditation on catharsis, and a gentle indictment of over-regulated education, but writer-director Philippe Falardeau also excels at portraying the subtle balance between grown-up concerns and a child’s view. Lazhar’s pupils are neither cute nor precocious, just sufficiently alert to check out Algeria on the internet.

Meanwhile, Lazhar is no New Age pushover, with his old school insistence on dispensing with chummy desk arrangements, and optimistic belief that he can bring 11-year-olds up to speed on Balzac. Fellag’s background as a stand-up comic comes through when he encounters Rice Krispie squares and politely mimes enthusiasm at the prospect of learning the recipe, but he also has an instinctive, attractive dignity when handling trickier scenes.

Adapted from a one-man show, Monsieur Lazhar was nominated for this year’s best foreign language Oscar. It lost to Iran’s A Separation but, like that film, it is an unsentimental parable about connection – and a lesson in how to build an affecting movie without resorting to familiar tropes.

Siobhan Synnot

Filmhouse, Edinburgh, and Glasgow Film Theatre, from Friday