03 May 2012

TEACHABLE MOMENTS

As you may know, the Academy Awards nominees for Best Foreign Language film get chosen by two groups: the old conservative group that enjoys simple morality plays, crusty grandpas, and dew-eyed children, and the edgy, smart group that was introduced in the 2000s specifically to make sure that at least some of the nominees are actually sharp, challenging cinema. In 2011, widely-regarded as one of the best overall fields of nominees in that category in years, it was extremely difficult for the most part to figure out which were the "smart arty" nominees, and which were the "general, cute, safe" nominees, but I think this can be said with dead certainty: the Canadian Monsieur Lazhar was not one of the arty ones.

Which is not, I hasten to add, the same as saying that it's bad. Truth be told, for what it is (a melodramatic half-comedy about a well-intentioned teacher who just, like really wants to help the kids, but in the end finds that they help him just as much), Monsieur Lazhar works awfully well, managing to be sweet and distinctly easy without feeling the need to talk down to the viewer at the same time. A great deal of the credit, and perhaps most of it, for the film's success on all levels belongs to Mohamed Fellag, an Algerian comedian who plays the titular Bachir Lazhar, and dodges all sorts of likely traps in doing so; it takes almost no imagination at all to put, say, early-'90s Robin Williams in this role, the result being an indefensible horror of sentimental mugging and insincere lunges at warm, cozy learning moments. That Monsieur Lazhar uniformly reminds one of human beings dealing with a difficult situation of the kind that nobody is every really prepared for, and not stock figures beating their breasts with mechanical precision to create the most wearying catharsis possible, speaks highly of Fellag's straightforward and gratifyingly non-actorly approach to the character, and as well of writer-director Philippe Falardeau's disinterest in playing the audience, when he can instead spend time examining his characters and allowing them plenty of space to react and grow without the need of self-conscious "moments".

And I lead off with this, because it would otherwise be impossible to describe Monsieur Lazhar's plot without making it sound like the most awful, unwatchable kind of middlebrow tragedy. See, there's this grade school teacher, Martine Lachance, who commits suicide one day. During school. Right in the class room. Where she is found by one of her most difficult students, Simon (Émilien Néron). Unsurprisingly, this event has a seismic effect on the entire school and on Martine's class in particular; in the vacuum it creates, the school principal, Mme Vaillancourt (Daniuelle Proulx), finds herself at sea in a nightmare to find a replacement immediately, which explains why she accepts so readily the offer made by Bachir Lazhar, who shows up uninvited and offers to teach Martine's class; a remarkably off-the-cuff solution to a hugely bureaucratic solution, and to the surprise of no-one, this ends up being something of a problem on and off for the remainder of the school year.

In the meantime, Lazhar takes over Martine's class, and gets to know her students, but especially Simon and star pupil Alice (Sophie Nélisse), who between themselves know, or think they know, what horrible thing happened that drove Martine to kill herself in such a showy fashion. While everybody from the school officials to the students themselves seems anxious to move on without stopping to reflect on what happened, Lazhar alone is anxious to instigate a full-on grieving process, while re-shaping the highly democratic, liberal education system popular at the school into something more traditional and demanding and intellectually rewarding; and for both of these reasons, he is viewed with a mixture of resentment and awe by a number of different people. But all of it is just a way of not dealing with his own horrible history of death and loss: for he left behind in Algeria a political activist wife who died along with their children in an arson attack, and he now seeks asylum in Canada, though he's conveniently hidden this fact from the school.

It is the worst thing one can say about the scripting of Monsieur Lazhar (adapted from a 2002 one-man play by Évelyne de la Chenelière, who has a wee little role in the film) that the exact lessons that you presently assume are drawn from this whole situation, and the specific conflicts that you expect to come out of these pedagogical disagreements and willful omissions are, in the event, the precise lessons and conflicts that do come along, and in approximately the same order. It is the best thing one can say about everything else that the film manages to feel smart, insightful, and moving even so, buoyed as I mentioned by Fellag's excellently simple work - I've hit the point where the phrase "lived-in" strikes me as tired and boring, but it's also the most efficient and accurate way I can think of to describe the performance - and some shockingly convincing acting by the kids surrounding him. And it must also be said, Falardeau directs the film without mercy, following the logic of the story rather than forcing it into certain emotional beats, pouncing from scene to scene with such snap that even at a concise 94 minutes, the film doesn't seem as a long as its running time. And for that, of course, editor Stéphane Lafleur deserves plenty of credit - and the editing here is absolutely magnificent, though it's the exact sort of thing that doesn't get noticed on account of being super anti-flashy.

At the same time, as much as the film's urgency elevates it and keeps it from bogging down in the generic impulses that have ruined many a teacher movie, it never goes by so fast as to lose sight of the specific people and specific place and specific feelings that it makes as its subject: the last schoolbound movie to demonstrate this much sensitivity for what the school experience is like, as both teacher and student, was The Class, three years ago; and Monsieur Lazhar comes at it from an entirely different angle, eschewing the documentary-like "you are there" aesthetic of that French film (a quintessentially European style, at that), for something more deliberate and staged; it never tries to pretend it's not a movie (the reveal of Martine's dead body is an outstanding mix of thriller and social realist tricks), but it is awfully good at a specific kind of movie naturalism that was all over the place back in the 1970s and into the 1980s, but has all but evaporated from most European and North American cinemas of late; the kind that assumes that we are adults who enjoy watching other adults moving through their problems with intelligence and dignity. There is, maybe, nothing ultimately insightful or revelatory or unique about Monsieur Lazhar, but there is a plain honesty to it that is extremely pleasurable, even so.

7/10

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