Entre les murs: Monsieur Lazhar

This Oscar-nominated drama, the fifth feature of Canadian writer-director Philippe Falardeau, is a work of remarkable tenderness and acuity, featuring moving portrayals from young actors disarmingly alert to the emotions of their characters. Set in a public school in Montréal, the story begins with a suicide: the teacher of a group of 11- & 12-year-olds has hanged herself in her classroom, and is discovered by one of her students. This is Simon (Émilien Néron). Another, Alice (Sophie Nélisse), accidentally glimpses the grim scene through the thin vertical pane of wire-strengthened glass in the door, and is just as shocked as he was. The film’s opening shot is of the two of them chatting before school; it’s ‘on their level,’ so-to-speak, and the film stays there, not just formally but in its script, pacing, and in the emotional connection it generates between audience and character portrayal, even as its central figure is the children’s new substitute teacher.

Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian refugee, is played by the comedian Mohamed Fellag. The film’s artfully incorporated subplot involves his efforts to be legally granted permanent residency; the court hearing he attends adds texture to the moving discussions he has with the children about the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of his predecessor’s death. He’s out of his element, and more than a little bumbling, but Monsieur Lazhar plainly cares for these kids and is concerned about their emotional well-being: he’s as enthusiastic about teaching them grammar and geography as he is annoyed by the fact that any meaningful, frank discussion of the suicide is verboten, even as psychic and physical reminders linger. The walls have been repainted, but the class hasn’t been moved to another room; they’re aware that this is where she did it—look, there’s the pipe she hanged herself from.

A psychologist comes in to try to help, but there’s only so much that can be done in a group-discussion format—so M. Lazhar jumps at every chance to talk about the event, even though he shouldn’t. He’s a traditionalist, re-arranging the children’s desks in orderly rows, and favouring dictées from Balzac over whatever less rareified literature the class had been taught in the past. This element of scripted stuffiness, paired with the aforementioned clumsiness, provides a lot of the film’s humour, improved markedly by Fellag’s innate comic talent: for all its dark themes and morbid-sounding synopsis, the film has a wry, humorous undercurrent. Some examples of the film remaining grounded in the kids’ perspective: Alice brings her new teacher a few books—one is a translation of White Fang by Jack London—as suggested replacements for a stuffy old novel (the Balzac); and there are a few untranslated (but easily deciphered) in-jokes here and there between Lazhar and an Arab student, Abdelmalek. The kids learn English with a funnily strong Canadian/American accent, and mock Monsieur Lazhar for his humorously poor grasp of the language.

The simple, light soundtrack is grounded by two piano pieces: Scarlatti’s mournful, lilting sonata in F minor (K. 466), and the opening measures of the first movement—Andante grazioso—of Mozart’s ‘Turkish Rondo’ sonata (K. 331). (Both are from superb recordings by Jean-Pascal Hamelin.) The latter has the child-like tone of a lullaby, and calculatedly arrives at the perfect moment. The film’s award-winning score is notable for its unobtrusiveness: rather than trying to outdo the other featured composers through intricate, multi-instrumental arrangements or overly melodramatic, syrupy eclecticism, the composer, Martin Léon, has opted for a collection of ornate, recurring themes. His music, strongly reminiscent of the beautifully plaintive score for Beginners, sits quietly alongside the Scarlatti and the Mozart, at times matching and even commenting on them in its melodies, many of which are initially played with only the right hand before being expanded upon by a string section.

Monsieur Lazhar’s underlying storyline is chiefly about the bureaucracy he encounters in his application for permanent residency, but even this is seen as if from the children’s point of view: his struggles are theirs, and vice-versa. The softly combative parent-teacher interviews he holds—because of his unorthodox, holistic methods, arguments arise—also place the class at the forefront. The only point the kids aren’t in some way on the audience’s mind is when Lazhar reluctantly agrees to a romantic dinner-date with a colleague; while it’s not out of place, the scene is a little distracting and basically unnecessary. (It’s not as if he needed to be further humanised.) The plot, which never resorts to forced or undue emotionalism, culminates in one of the most beautifully poetic montages in recent years; this Oscar-nominated masterpiece should easily move even the most hardened and cynical of viewers.

Monsieur Lazhar had sneak previews over the weekend; it opens on Thursday.