MONSIEUR LAZHAR (2011)


When my friend was away in France teaching English for a year, she emailed me with some titles of must-see French movies. One of them was MONSIEUR LAZHAR (2011), which is in fact French-Canadian. This film directed by Philippe Falardeau takes place in a Montreal public school. When a middle school teacher commits suicide in her classroom, Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian immigrant, comes in to take over her class. The  children struggle to come to terms with the tragedy as Monsieur Lazhar grapples with his own demons. He works hard to help the children heal, but he is held back by a school system that is too concerned about policy to be of any practical help to its students.

Although this movie doesn’t sound like a million laughs, it has a lot of heart. I was worried at first that it would be like so many other teacher movies where the whole plot of the story is about a newby teacher learning how to control and win the affections of his unruly pupils. But this movie does not follow that banal pattern at all; the audience cannot predict the trajectory of the story at all. Sometimes you forget what the movie is actually supposed to be about and you just get enveloped in the world of the characters. As you learn more about the individual children and the various teachers and faculty at the school, you start to really empathize with the emotional struggle they are all undergoing.

Émilien Néron and Sophie Nélisse as Simon and Alice

This movie is very subtle, yet surprisingly clear in its message. There are several very strong themes which thread through the story without interrupting the narrative. The film examines the relationship between a cold, faceless school district and the individuals who are governed by it, including the administrators, teachers, and the students themselves. As the film progresses, you cannot help but realize how wrong it is for emotional stability to be manipulated, contained, controlled, and developed by such a standardized, methodical system.

There are several allusions to the concept of motherhood throughout this film, both literally and figuratively. The movie demonstrated how the lines between parenting and teaching can be terribly vague, baffling students, parents, and teachers alike. There is also a constant conflict raging within each individual about the relationship between the private/personal and the public within the space of a classroom. They have all found themselves in a tragic situation which tests the boundaries of any preconceived definitions of school as space.  This is also mirrored in the typically French-Canadian vagaries of nationality, as reflected through language.

Seddik Benslimane as Abdelmalek and
Mohamed Fellag as Bachir Lazhar

There are several very good performances given in the film. Mohamed Fellag does a wonderful job with a part that requires a lot of finesse. The children of the classroom are at once very childlike and incredibly mature. In one scene Alice (Sophie Nelisse) is reading a piece she wrote about the incident and she says, “It’s not the children who are traumatized; it’s the adults.” Their acting is natural and easy, but also very sophisticated in its simplicity. Emilien Neron, who playes the main boy Simon, gives an outstanding delivery of the film’s climactic monologue. It’s an absolutely gutwrenching moment and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house as he repeatedly, tearfully declares “C’est pas ma faut!”

I highly recommend this film. It is intelligently conceived and intelligently delivered. Movies like this serve a double purpose: first to record the atmosphere of an environment, second to highlight problems within that environment so as to instigate change. Progressive messages in films can go a long way in changing society for the better if audiences view intelligent works with a discerning thought. I hope you enjoy this film and come back to tell me what you think!


3 thoughts on “MONSIEUR LAZHAR (2011)

  • Wilde.Dash

    I’ve been super curious about this one, but just didn’t have the time to catch it at my nearby arthouse theater. Good review though, glad to hear it’s as good as it looked.

  • Ed Molnar

    Good analysis Margaret. I actually went to this movie thinking it was a comedy based on the promotional out-takes. I brought along my son and his friend ( high school French students) for the cultural experience and what I thought was some laughs. Once we realized the movie was about suicide and its effects on those left in its wake, we were too hooked on the drama to get up and leave. The acting was superb and you are correct in saying the audience was never sure of what direction the movie was taking, It kept you invested and on edge throughout. I will say it was true to French films which always leave you a bit unsatisfied unlike Hollywood which always seems to have to have a perfect ending, but I also liked that aspect of the movie. 4 stars for me.

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