Rating: 2.5/5The sound design of Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar stresses the echo of school halls, the reverberating cacophony of footfalls, jumbled threads of chit-chat and the slamming of metal lockers. It subtly casts an elementary school in harsh tones, emphasizing what a scary, senseless place school can be for children still learning their place in the world. And this is before a boy tasked with bringing the milk to his classroom on a Thursday morning finds his teacher hanging dead from the ceiling at the end of the cold open.
Following in the aftermath of Martine’s suicide, Monsieur Lazhar attempts to address grief, confusion, guilt and coping, not merely among the students but the teachers. As one girl tells the titular character, the substitute hired to fill Martine’s post, “Everyone thinks we’re traumatized, but it’s the adults who are.” Indeed, Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Saïd Fellag), whose bubbly charm seems almost inappropriate so soon after his predecessor’s death, suppresses secrets and trauma of his own under that veneer of affability.
The film works best when it conveys these buried emotions in glances. Falardeau’s camera catches quick, darting shots of the children at school, poking and teasing each other like all obnoxious prepubescents. But do their actions, filled with hormonal aggression and petulance, stem solely from youthful anomie, or does this recognizable behavior hide unspoken effects of the suicide? In leaving such moments ambiguous, Monsieur Lazhar captures some of the fragility of the situation, of the way that trying to help a child could potentially only make things much, much worse.
Fellag, too, shines in his smaller, psychologically unclear moments. A comedian by trade, Fellag nevertheless does not have to reach deep within himself to find the pain that afflicts Bachir, who lost his wife and children in Algeria to reprisals against his wife’s politically incriminating book. Fellag himself fled the country during its civil war in the mid-‘90s, and having experienced similar fear, he does not feel the need to parade it around dramatically. Instead, the actor offers insights into his mental state and the truth behind his cover story with instinctive actions. When Simon (Émilien Néron), a young boy who seems particularly disturbed by Martine’s suicide, takes a photo of Bachir on his first day, the man’s jovial demeanor drops for an instant, replaced instead by a mild anger fueled by checked panic. Later, he lightly smacks Simon on the head for throwing something at a classmate, an emotional oversight that not only gets him a reprimand but tacitly calls into question his teaching expertise.
Unfortunately, these unforced, small touches slowly give way to moralizing speeches and characterizations of increasing simplicity. Bachir’s dulled, somber grief around his lawyer is soon pit against the hyperbolic doubt of the Québécois official deciding whether to grant him asylum. This man seems to want nothing more than to keep Bachir out, introducing a vague xenophobic streak picked up by the stuck-up parents of one of the girls in Bachir’s class. When he expresses concern over the child’s arrogant attitude, the parents all but come right out and say that the views of their natural-born, bourgeois white child are worth more than the input of some Arabic immigrant. The film does a good enough job of suggesting that Bachir’s ethnicity might be one of the factors in the children’s reaction to him without needing to resort to such exaggerated scenes.
Likewise, the speeches that riddle the movie’s second half do nothing more than loudly repeat what had been so gracefully hinted at earlier. Alice (Sophie Nélisse, who looks like a young Drew Barrymore), who vaguely accuses Simon of something throughout, eventually starts giving grandiose, accusatory addresses to the class that speak to her anger and hurt. Simon, in turn, is forced to stop being a child wrestling with the crushing guilt that afflicts children forced to deal with the carelessness and naïveté of their choices for the first time in their short loves. Instead, he must have his own climactic moment, one that attempts to sidestep an easy narrative summary but makes the opposite mistake of being so deflated and pointless that the halt in narrative momentum serves no purpose.
At one point, Bachir even encourages his class not to seek meaning in Martine’s death, because there is none. He tries to follow this up with something inspirational, but he just gave away his whole hand. Initially empathetic and keenly observant, Monsieur Lazhar backs off its own complexity, reducing its thick web of inchoate trauma, angst and anxiety (and the attendant cultural divide) to a vague, insolvable problem. It’s one thing to avoid easy answers; Monsieur Lazhar does not seek any at all.