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Thread: MONSIEUR LAZHAR (Canada/2011)

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Oct 2002

    MONSIEUR LAZHAR (Canada/2011)

    This fourth feature from writer/director Philippe Falardeau received an Oscar nomination and numerous festival awards. It is indeed a very good film in which an Algerian immigrant with a traumatic past manages to get hired to teach a group of children after the recent suicide of Martine, their teacher. The film focuses on two 11 or 12 year-olds who are particularly affected: Simon, who carries the burden of guilt, and Alice, who caught a glimpse of Martine’s body limply hanging from a ceiling pipe in the classroom. Thus Martine has "infected the school with her despair". The narrative foregrounds the cultural differences between M. Lazhar and the Quebecois school system, personified by school principal Ms. Vaillancourt, and how these differences play out relative to helping Simon and Alice through the emotional crisis.

    Monsieur Lazhar contains several remarkable scenes. Two seemingly casual and unassuming bits had special resonance for me. Lazhar is alone in the classroom. He puts a banana and cereal bar on a student's desk and lifts another student's desktop to take a peek inside. Then he walks to the desk belonging to Alice, his favorite student, and smiles when he finds two pictures of Algiers affixed to it. I wonder what Ms. Vaillancourt would think of Lazhar's behavior had she witnessed it. Perhaps she would argue that it violates the children's right to privacy and Lazhar would characterize it as an effort to know his students better, or as simple curiosity. He clearly takes a special interest in the lives of his students. He is not above feeling validated by evidence that he has become a significant person in Alice's life and being moved by it.
    The other scene I would like to discuss is a classroom exchange motivated by the word "defenestrate", which has particular meaning for one boy.

    Martin: My granddad defenestrated himself. A long time ago, in Chile, the army imprisoned him. He was tortured. He killed himself after being released, or escaping…"
    M. Lazhar: "Did you discuss it with anyone?"
    Martin: "With Mom. When Martine killed herself, we…"
    Alice, after a swift cut, with aplomb: “It’s not the same at all what happened with Martine."
    Martin: "I never said it was."

    Our human nature mandates that in order to know something we need to compare it to something else that already exists within our frame of reference or to subsume it under a broader conceptual scheme. Comparison makes our understanding richer and more complex but deprives the object awaiting acknowledgement of some of its particularity and specificity. These epistemological facts become especially poignant relative to efforts to understand and represent someone else’s trauma. Trauma is an event so intense and terrible that it simultaneously demands and defies understanding and representation. Alice's retort to Martin is an expression of the human fear to have our own experience diminished by comparison to other presumably equivalent experiences. To Alice, Martin's comparison, no matter how apt, feels like a betrayal, and a form of erasure.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area
    I don't know what the play is like, but certainly the classroom is like a stage and each small event is magnified, and these students are at the ripe age for students, when they are the most receptive for field trips, museum visits, and so forth. And everything emotional is magnified by the suicide of their teacher whom M. Lazhar replaces. I'll leave the discussion of the film to you since I could not write about it. My feelings were too mixed. It's certainly an excellent film rich in implications. It left me very depressed and sad though. Probably good to write about but then the SFIFF began and I didn't really have time to go back to M. Lazhar when I was working to keep up my festival coverage.


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