Standout and Deliver, by David Bax
Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar is another entry in subgenre of films about a new teacher coming into her or his student’s lives, then changing and inspiring them. It’s a reliable formula, from Dangerous Minds to Dead Poets Society to that episode of My So-Called Life where Roger Rees holds aloft a defiant Black Power fist after being fired. This new film manages to either invert the clichés one would expect or integrate them organically into its thoughtful character explorations, creating something that seems fresh and new.
At a Montreal elementary school, a teacher’s sudden death leaves a vacancy that the principal fills with the first willing applicant, an Algerian immigrant named Bachir Lazhar. As we will soon learn, Lazhar is still reeling from his own recent losses. His wife and daughter were murdered in Algeria. And so a group of fringe citizens (an immigrant and a bunch of children) work through the grief they don’t know what to do with.
In this type of film, the new teacher is generally someone idealistic and iconoclastic. The sly joke of Monsieur Lazhar is that, in a place that has liberally catered its methodology to favor parity and togetherness over education, Bachir’s iconoclasm exists in his very traditionalism. He rearranges the desks into standard rows and columns instead of the around-the-campfire semicircle in which he found them; he laments that he can’t lay a hand on any of his students as if they are all made of volatile contents under pressure; he insists on their learning passages from Balzac. The pleasant surprise is that the film avoids using this otherness for simple fish-out-of-water jokes and instead utilizes them for insight into the good and bad of Bachir’s character.
This isn’t a film about a man’s cultural or age differences, though. It is a film about grief. The children have had death crash into a world which, as we’ve seen, was very protective of them. They deal differently with their teacher’s passing than the adult faculty, not only because they are young and death is mostly new to them but because they knew her differently, maybe even better. They were all at various stages in their relationship with their teacher. Some of them are learning the lesson that you don’t always get to choose the last thing you say to someone before they die. Meanwhile, their teacher may or may not be helping things along with his refusal to coddle them as the rest of the staff does. Not only is it in his nature to be frank but he is even less willing to be kind about the dead woman because he has his own grudge against this person he’s never met. This teacher died by her own hand. Bachir’s wife was killed because of things that she had written and published. He’s quietly angry at her for what he, perhaps only subconsciously, sees as complicity in her own death and her daughter’s.
Lest I make the affair sound too dreary, let me assure you this is a fun movie to watch. It’s filled with a melancholic but very effective brand of humor and it’s expertly constructed. Using mostly short scenes and a loose, free camera, the film slides along at a brisk pace.
Though it mostly finds ways to stand apart from the clichés of the inspirational teacher film, Monsieur Lazhar does hit one of the most important ones dead on. By the film’s end, the teacher has been changed by the children as much as he’s changed them. Yet there is no tidy resolution. The students and the instructor have simply encountered one another on their own paths to the rest of their lives.