While the Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar is not the first film to come from Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau, it appears to be the first one to secure a U.S. release. I can’t speak for the earlier films, but it’s easy to understand why this one cracked the U.S. market—and why it picked up a Best Foreign Language Film nomination, though it’s probably too much a small-scale work to ever have had a real chance at winning. All the same, it’s a splendid little film that takes the fairly dreadful “teacher who makes a difference” sub-genre and puts an interesting new spin on it that gives it the allure of something fresh.
There are undeniable similarities to other films of its type—James Clavell’s To Sir, with Love (1967) is probably the most like it—but it departs in so many ways that the comparison is little more than skin deep. This film is much less from a single point of view, and it has ultimately got some very different things on its mind. It suggests as much from the very beginning. The film, in fact, starts off with the event—a teacher has hanged herself in her classroom and is found by one of her students, Simon (Émilien Néron)—that provides Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag, billed simply as Fellag) with the chance of getting a job as a substitute teacher.
Bachir presents himself to the somewhat stiff-backed principal, Mrs. Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), as a teacher, and against her better judgment—prodded by the fact that there’s no immediate alternative—she hires him to take over the class. (This strikes me as a questionable point, but perhaps the school system In Montreal works differently than any I’m used to.) In actual point of fact, Bachir has presented himself in a less than truthful manner, but I’ll leave it to the film to reveal just how—and in how many ways.
What Bachir finds is a classroom of children supposedly traumatized by the suicide, who, for the most part, don’t really seem to be. Since the school psychologist’s sessions with the class exclude him, though, he’s not in the best position to judge. All the same, there are clear undercurrents the things are not as normalized as they seem. One student, Simon, harbors some kind of obvious secret about the teacher’s suicide. Another, Alice (Sophie Nélisse), actually writes an essay on the topic—one that Bachir feels would be helpful if reprinted and passed around the school, an idea quickly scotched by the principal. At the same time, Bachir isn’t a perfect fit with the students. His French is classic in nature—what the kids call “old”—and his idea of a suitable text for them to copy, one of Balzac’s works, is anything but appropriate. Still, there’s a definite connection between teacher and students that ultimately benefits both—even if in a bittersweet manner.
As noted, Monsieur Lazhar ploughs familiar ground on occasion. Both a school dance and an incipient romance between Bachir and another teacher (Brigitte Poupart) are To Sir, with Love in updated clothing. But overall the film is ultimately its own beast—one with a satisfying and touching heart. The most remarkable thing about it, though, is the sheer volume of detail, event and characterization contained in its brief 94-minute running time—something that some of our more long-winded filmmakers ought to take to heart. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, a disturbing image and brief language.