Monsieur Lazhar. 2011. Philippe Falardieu, director. Quebec.
Cinematic depictions of teachers follow a similar template: An inspirational teacher brings his passion and dedication to inner-city students so full of potential but seen by previous teachers as beyond hope or an inspirational teacher brings her passion and dedication to capable but bored suburban students who, until now, have taken what they have for granted.
Aberrations place a mercenary on school grounds as an undercover substitute; perhaps replacing a girlfriend who had been knee-capped by her students or a brother who had been murdered (violence, obviously, resulting from that teacher discovering a massive illegal operation being run from the basement of the school).
Monsieur Lazhar, a Quebec-based picture, has other interests. An elementary classroom in Montreal has experienced the unexpected death of its teacher. Lazhar, claiming to have taught in Algeria for nineteen years and to now being a permanent resident of Canada, presents himself as able to immediately fill the vacancy.
His methods are old-world. After Lazhar places the desks of his students in lines, one colleague responds that it has been years since she has seen this. Further, Lazhar seems not to have received any Memo about physical contact with the children as, without much hesitation, he smacks one misbehaving boy across the head. Lazhar does not know what to do with the lap-top left by his predecessor and he uses the writings of the prehistoric Balzac in his dictations to students. His classroom is as colourless as a hospital and his experimentation with methods of classroom control are not particularly effective.
Lazhar should be a disaster but strangely he is not. When he presents himself to the principal for employment, he offers as credentials his love for children. In an innocent enough moment, while waiting at a post office for a parcel, Lazhar turns to scan a display of stickers that his students might enjoy. He is not just killing time here. The students loved their dead teacher and Lazhar exists alongside them through their grief. It is his love and his gentleness – and not lengthy speeches or tricks of pedagogy like standing on a desk or ripping pages from a book – which make the difference.
Besides understanding what happens in real classrooms, director Philippe Falardieu seems to understand children of this age very well. He presents them as the complex individuals they really are; the child Alice, for example, is insightful and oblivious, tough and fragile, sensitive and cruel. Huddled at recess, children question whether one of their teachers can even read. Another student mimics the dictations of Lazhar as he walks home with his friend. The children in Monsieur Lazhar are not speaking words an adult has artificially placed in their mouths. The viewer is given, largely, the voices of real children.
Lazhar has his own personal history: You must share [who you are] with your kids, one colleague tells him. Probably rightly. Who Lazhar is has helped him approach the children in the way he does. Lazhar does not see merit in self-revelation, however. As the viewer learns more and more about Lazhar, he or she gets a sense, I think, that Lazhar is perhaps best able to be alongside these children in their grief.
The film, in its last scene, ends beautifully. The theme of the chrysalis has run throughout but, given the relationship between the final scene with what motivated the opening scene and given the relationship between how the image of the chrysalis interacts not only in the classroom of Monsieur Lazhar but also in his own personal history, perhaps I can conclude by simply recommending Monsieur Lazhar. It was a film I very much anticipated and now very much admire.
Monsieur Lazhar has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for “mature thematic material, a disturbing image and brief language”.