As I’ve discussed on a couple of occasions is that we have a pre-life with Monsieur Lazhar there were a few things I knew about it. I first heard of it on its road to the Oscars as Canada’s entry into the foreign language film race and its eventual nomination. Based on its premise I knew it was something that would interest me. Later on came pieces about director Phillipe Faladreau and working with a young cast and in one of them came the revelation that the screenplay was extrapolated from a one-character play, I knew it was a must-see for me.
What makes this film the most interesting is the way that it cuts and structures itself. We follow these characters coming into a difficult situation throughout the course of much of a school year. The film accomplishes this by not letting scenes run too long and giving us small but sufficient glimpses into the day-to-day interactions he has with his students.
This approach benefits the film in so many ways: it allows the children’s characters to slowly build such that we get a sense not only who the two main kids, who are the fulcrums of the drama in this tale, who grieve most for the lost of their former teacher at her own hand, for very different reasons; but also several other children in the class. The fact that there aren’t long, revelatory dialogue scenes means the physicality these children display has to be exceptional. We have to read their emotions on their face rather than getting overly overt indicators from their words and we do see that.
Yet in the development of Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) this structure is also beneficial. One of the most fascinating things about the film is that you see a character operating in a two different arenas: his personal and private lives. Never the tween shall meet but they are of equal importance. It’s truly a tremendously ingenious approach.
Perhaps what is most brilliant about the film is the way in which fables, and the writing thereof, become integral in the film toward the end but also the film plays as one. The school the film is set in is deeply wounded by this inexplicable and shocking suicide and in comes this mysterious stranger, like a benevolent pied piper to heal them all.
The genesis of this film was a one-character play so clearly finding that character for your film will be incredibly important, that is the directorial and performance challenge of the film, whereas the screenwriting challenge is expanding that world outward. Fellag is absolutely perfect in this film. He truly plays the film with incredible adroitness. Having an actor’s face be new to you can be refreshing for the viewer, however, the performance in is regard is truly all there. He carries himself as a set in his ways, firm but fair, affable teacher- the kind that if we had one we were lucky- throughout the classroom scenes in spite of inherent early nervousness.
Yet what is in many ways a schoolroom drama cannot be complete without the children being equal to the task, for as characters they are certainly not secondary or afterthoughts, and their performances rise to the challenge. First, there’s Sophie Nélisse who carries herself with the grace and poise of veteran who has charms and inherent talent in abundance. I haven’t seen the likes of her since Anna Chlumsky burst on to the scene in My Girl. For those of you scoring at home, that was 21 years ago. Émilien Néron has no easy task himself. He is a simmering cauldron waiting to boil over through a majority of the film. He has a huge revelatory scene, and as I mentioned before physicality matters and his revelations color all those scenes differently in hindsight. However, it’s also a scene that’s emotionally draining one that absolutely has to be nailed and it is. Going down the line you also have mostly humorous turns from Seddik Benslimane, who speaking Arabic himself has his own inside jokes with Monsieur Lazhar (And I love how they weren’t translated) and Vincent Millard. There’s also Marie-Ève Beauregard playing the role of a stickler to a tee. It’s practically the epitome of a youth ensemble as quite a few of the other students have their own moments.
Monsieur Lazhar not only gets you to invest in the lives of this teacher and his student but it incrementally builds and pushes your buttons at the right time. Its ending is absolutely perfect, which is a big deal to me but the journey was very enjoyable as well. It is a moving and affecting film that will surely win admirers for years to come.