It is very tricky to properly portray children on film. They usually come across as either miniature adults or irritating idiots — both inaccurate portrayals of real-life kids. It takes a film as sensitive and observant as Monsieur Lazhar to portray children as they really are.
Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards and based on a one-person play by Évelyne de la Chenelière, Philippe Felardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar is a French-Canadian film exploring grief, education and how teachers influence the lives of their students.
One day at a preppy middle school, a teacher hangs herself in her classroom, leaving her students and the school as a whole reeling from the grief. The administration doesn’t know how to handle the suicide. They don’t want to discuss it with the children and resort to cheap euphemisms and explanations to try to get the children to forget it.
An Algerian immigrant, Bachir Lazhar, reads about the situation in the paper and offers to teach the class. He has 19 years of experience teaching students back in Algeria and feels he can help.
Lazhar is an unconventional teacher. The students think he’s old-fashioned. He has them arrange their desks in rows, teaches outdated French grammar and uses Balzac as the basis of his composition assignments.
He also thinks the children should be talked to about the suicide of their former teacher. Unlike the administration and parents who think simply ignoring the problem will make it go away, Lazhar respects his students’ capacity to handle grief and work through it. He sees them as individuals.
Remarkably, the film as a whole treats the children as individuals. It allows the children’s reactions to be honest — the kind of confused and childish reactions that children really have to overwhelming situations. For example, the student responsible for finding the previous teacher’s corpse reacts through violence and teasing. He is ashamed of how he treated his teacher before she died and his confusion manifests itself through hostility and aggression. This isn’t meant to signify that Monsieur Lazhar boils down every reaction to some simplistic psychological motivation. Instead, it shows that how children handle grief often makes little sense to the observer.
Monsieur Lazhar is deceptively simple, in its style and its story. This simplicity masks how thematically rich it is.
Mohamed Fellag is wonderful as Lazhar and Falardeau surrounds him with some outstanding child actors. Lazhar is a complex individual and a very private one. He refuses to unload his emotional baggage on others, and even though he has a very personal connection to grief that helps him work with the children, he never shares this with the children. He is selfless and sympathetic without being sentimental.
Much of the effectiveness of the Lazhar character is due to Falardeau’s writing, which never resorts to Hollywood contrivances of explaining away everything and allowing all problems to be resolved. There are no easy resolutions to tragedy in real life. There are no lessons to be learned from suicide. The film simply understands that grief is something to be worked through, to be endured, and that someone who has personally experienced grief is the best person to help others through theirs.
The film also seems to have a subtle political edge to it that is critical of both current school administrators and education policy in general. Through Lazhar’s interactions with the school administration and the immigration board, the film shows how all bureaucratic organizations see people as less than individuals — merely things to be dealt with.
Monsieur Lazhar is an emotional film, but also an extremely enjoyable one. For all the dark thematic content it deals with, there’s a joy to the film and a catharsis that doesn’t come from the children ignoring or moving past the grief, but from Lazhar helping them accept it.
What could have easily been a conventional story of an idealistic teacher striving against an unfeeling administration and uncooperative students is instead a powerful story of a teacher striving to do what is best for his students. It understands that, at its essence, childhood education is more than curriculum and psychology, but instead a profound intellectual and emotional connection between teacher and student.