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Good Grief

by Shawn Stone on May 30, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar
Directed by Philippe Falardeau

Monsieur Lazhar, the recent Quebeçois Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film (it lost to A Separation) is a quiet, occasionally droll and ultimately moving exploration of how we react, officially and personally, to tragedy. The fact that the lead character is a teacher, and the setting a school, ads richness to the subject.

The film begins with the suicide by hanging of another teacher in her classroom. One of the students, Simon (Émilien Néron, left), in this class of 11- and 12-year-olds discovers the body hanging from a steel pipe; another, Alice (Sophie Nélisse, right), sees this ghastly sight for a moment before another teacher whisks her (and everyone else) outside. Both had personal connections to the late Mme. Lachance (Héléna Laliberté) that will emerge later in the story.

Obviously, this has a terrible effect on the kids; the look of their frightened, depressed, shocked and resigned faces, captured in simple, direct widescreen images by director Philippe Falardeau, is more eloquent than the words of the harried principal (Danielle Proulx) trying to calm the assembled students and teachers with assurances that psychiatric help is forthcoming, and everything will be putback in order.

There is a more practical problem: Where will the school find a replacement? Enter Bachir Lazhar (Fellag, a single-named comedian and novelist who’s terrific in his first dramatic role), an Algerian refugee who shows up in the principal’s office with a convincing presentation and a curious CV. With no other available options, he is quickly hired and installed as replacement.

The broad outlines of what a moviegoer would expect of this situation unfold right on cue: The new teacher adjusts to the kids, and vice versa; we learn a bit about Lazhar’s personal life, and it turns out that he also is dealing with a horrible tragedy; and both teacher and students have secrets that are revealed in due course, shedding light on the various relationships and mysteries.

What makes Monsieur Lazhar special is the understated, almost offhand way all this is developed. There’s a fairly big plot reveal early on that should alter the way we look at the main character, but doesn’t. And this information seems like it should add suspense to the drama, but it doesn’t. Filmmaker Falardeau’s avoidance of familiar narrative traps is admirable (and unusual).

Monsieur Lazhar seems like it’s going to end as it began, on the playground, with a reassuring moment of closure: An emotionally restored Alice and Simon are friends again, and Alice’s mom has thanked M. Lazhar for being so supportive. But it doesn’t: There’s one more aftereffect of the suicide to come, and one more attempt to make sense of it all. It’s an unnerving, but honest, way to end a thoughtful movie.