Thursday, 16 February 2012

MONSIEUR LAZHAR - French Canada's Oscar Nominee is a crock; an entertaining and well acted crock, but a crock nevertheless.

Monsieur Lazhar (2011) dir. Phillipe Falardeau
Starring: Fellag, Émilien Néron, Sophie Nélisse, Danielle Proulx


By Greg Klymkiw

When a popular teacher in a Montreal public elementary school commits suicide, she is replaced by the title character Monsieur Lazhar (Fellag), an Algerian immigrant who helps the children heal while hiding his own political refugee status as well as the fact that his wife and children were murdered by extremist terrorists in his home country.

Lazhar blends "old world" teaching methods with clearly personal and unconventional approaches. He eschews curriculum in favour of both practical AND philosophical areas more suited to genuinely providing deeper learning to kids who have clearly been traumatized by this horrific action. His insistence upon using Balzac for dictation opens up areas of learning that otherwise would have been ignored. This even inspires a gifted young student, his pet, to suggest he try using Jack London's immortal "White Fang" instead of the Balzac. This is one of many lovely details that desperately compel one to forgive the serious storytelling flaws that keep the film from attaining the greatness it should otherwise have attained.

The kids fall in love with this rascally Algerian and so do we. (There's also a delightful sub-plot where one of his colleagues falls for him romantically.) A large part of the character's winning qualities are due to Fellag's exquisite performance. Lazhar's good humour, his zest for teaching, his love of children are all worn on this magnificent actor's sleeve whilst he alternately displays, deep in his eyes, the pain of loss that haunts him.

The hurt the kids feel from the suicide of their teacher is tackled by Lazhar's sensitive handling of the problem. He makes a difference in their lives - he's a teacher AND a friend.

This all sounds like perfect Oscar bait to me: Immigrant mends his broken heart by mending the broken hearts of children. And sure enough, the movie has garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film, a whack of Genie Award (Canada's "Oscar") nominations, a spot on the TIFF Canada Top Ten, glowing reviews, The Toronto Film Critics prize for Best Canadian feature film and excellent box office. The movie is well made in so many respects (lovely mise-en-scene, great performances all around and a heart nestled firmly in the right place), but the story itself is rife with far too many lapses in logic and/or credibility for the movie to be taken seriously as anything but a feel-good wallow for the less-discriminating.

Lazhar's journey allows HIM to live with the pain and guilt he feels for his own family being slaughtered by extremists in Algeria and make no mistake - this NOTION is profoundly moving, but it's an element of the tale that sadly loses the depth it could have had.

The narrative's first major stumbling block occurs early on when it is revealed that there are no takers for the replacement position because of the perceived stigma attached to replacing a teacher who has hung herself in her own classroom. This plot detail stunned me. Things might be different in La Belle Province, but given the fact that there are jobless teachers all over the country who can't get work, let alone steady work, it's pretty much impossible to buy that the school's principal (Danielle Proulx) can't fill the open spot.

Granted, things in Quebec tend to march to the beat of their own drum more than in English Canada (or for that matter, the rest of the world), but given the strength of unions - particularly teaching unions - issues of seniority, etc. would definitely come into play here no matter what the circumstance.

I also grant that over ten years ago there was a weird generational cusp period all over North America where a teacher shortage did indeed exist and substitute teachers with little or no qualifications were hired at the discretion of principals in emergency situations. The movie appears to be contemporary and if, at any point it emphasizes being set during the turn of the new millennium, it does so rather ineffectively.

Here's the problem with such a lack of attention to these details. All the aforementioned speed bumps paraded through my thoughts while watching the movie and severely impeded my ability to go with the flow.

Further to the above, then, is that Lazhar is hired by merely dropping off his resume, expressing an emphatic interest in teaching AND the fake excuse the movie delivers about not being able to find a replacement for the teacher who snapped her neck. Again, the requirements to get a teaching job with any school board are so stringent and the hiring process so carefully regulated, that this is absolutely impossible to swallow. (Sure, stuff can slip through the cracks, but for this to register narratively in a believable manner, would have required a much more careful set-up.)

Other impediments to the flow of the drama are the fact that Lazhar is required to do is fill out some Ministry forms shoved at him by the principal and that while awaiting a ruling from the courts as to his eligibility to be considered a landed immigrant on the basis of political asylum, he seems to be completely oblivious to the seriousness of misrepresenting himself in order to get a job as a teacher. Astonishingly, we know early on that he actually ran a restaurant in Algeria and that his late wife was, in fact, a teacher. Surely such an understandable need to continue her work in the "new world" is a lovely character-touch, but is not at all exploited for its value in terms of both the moral issue of misrepresentation and the tension/conflict this could have added to the narrative.

Some might argue that all movies (and all stories, for that matter) require - to certain degrees - a suspension of disbelief. Yes, true; to an extent. But given that the above elements are so huge, so overwhelming that no matter how beautifully acted and directed the proceedings are, no matter how exquisite individual scenes and sequences are, no matter how important the themes of healing and acceptance are - if a movie doesn't do its job and address narrative elements that have so much potential to provide stumbling blocks, then the picture is not doing its job - period.

I'm willing to concede that this problem might have more to do with the original source material used to adapt the tale to film. Evelyne de la Cheneliere's play "Bachir Lazhar", a one-man show, would have been written closer to the period when a teaching shortage existed. That this appears to have been completely ignored in the film's journey from stage to screen is, however, a major lapse.

Given director Falardeau's welcome lack of the annoying Quebecois stylistic excess of the majority of the province's artier fare and his attempt to provide a mise-en-scene that's rooted in reality, it's shocking to me that the screenplay never bothered to address any of the above issues in any serious fashion. I still can't, for the life of me, figure out (or buy) how Lazhar got the job in light of everything detailed above.

As the movie unfolds, it's very hard to just sit back and enjoy the movie. I'd argue these holes and unaddressed issues would have all been easy fixes. In fact, if more had been made of the fact that Lazhar had to have brazenly and intentionally falsified his qualifications, there might even have been added elements of suspense in terms of his courtroom battle to gain political refugee status.

If Monsieur Lazhar was some Hollywood nonsense like Dangerous Minds, it might have been a bit easier to swallow, but because Falardeau is clearly a gifted filmmaker dealing with a story infused with important thematic issues of healing in a world so rife with strife, the narrative flaws are a bitter pill. It is not only hard to swallow, but ultimately, impossible to swallow. The movie tries to shove an oversized horse pill down our throats and in so doing, inspires our collective gag reflexes to work overtime.

So much in this film is so beautiful and yet, in spite of a desire to fall in love with it, I was unable to do so because of its sloppy storytelling.

That said, the tale's dishonesty might be enough to win it a surprise Oscar over the powerful Iranian favourite A Separation. Such a win, however, might well open the floodgates for more of the same. This will be a good thing, if any subsequent works inspired by Monsieur Lazhar take better care addressing basic issues of logic.

"Monsieur Lazhar" is nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar and currently in theatrical release via e-One. In Toronto, it is playing to sellout houses at the Toronto International Film Festival TIFF Bell Lightbox. While it has widened its reach to Cineplex Entertainment cinemas, if you must see it, try to see it at Lightbox or your local independent cinema for the best projection and to support venues that support Canadian Cinema.