Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Monsieur Lazhar

"Monsieur Lazhar"  is an alternately warm and existential character study with no easy resolution. Rather than present itself as a "feelgood" film, it simply lets the characters evolve without pat endings. The slice of life approach is refreshing and novel and it goes worlds beyond other dramas that feel the need for melodramatic and syrupy conclusions.

The main setting of the film is a Montreal school and the drama within. We are introduced to a couple of precocious children: Simon (Emilien Neron) and Alice (Sophie Nelisse). Both Alice and Simon are friends with a mercurial chemistry. Alice has a knack for sensing both the charm and the nihilism of things and Simon is a voyeuristic shutterbug, slightly passive yet nervous with creative uges. Both are wise beyond their years. 

One morning when Simon goes to get milk, the two see something that no child or adult should ever see, the sight of their teacher who committed suicide by hanging herself in the classroom. The school is in shock. 

M. Bashir Lazhar, (Mohamed Said Fellag) a former Algerian cafe owner, applies for the position.

What follows is a semi-Kafkaesque character study focusing on M. Lazhar and his drive to reach and comfort his students in their grief. A highlight of the film is the spotlight on the kids themselves as they are portrayed without embellishment or hyperbole. There is Victor (Vincent Millard) who is lethargic, spunky and nonchalant. And also Marie- Frederique (Marie- Eve Beauregard) who is a junior authoritarian. The exchanges with the students are lively and sharp and seem to contain the best repartee of "The Little Rascals" or the film "Stand by Me" (1986). Although the ensemble cast is wonderful as a whole, it is Sophie Nelisse as Alice and Emilien Neron as Simon that shine both  singularly and together. Through them we see childhood and loss as it really is, an element of dark magic---irreverent, mysterious, comical, crushing and always hard to define. Alice does indeed seem in a Wonderland filled with wolves and fables. One gets the feeling that she is willing to call on the dark arts of sorcery to solve the riddles of grief. With her rosebud smile and pale snowflake complexion, she seems a young Ophelia--halfway between Sartre and Sesame Street.

This mystery is coupled with Lazhar's predicament of being a refugee, forced to seek asylum due to terrorist threats while the school seems to look for any shortcoming to fire him. Lazhar can't even dance with his students due to suspicion of molestation. Moreover, the otherness of being an asylum seeker is with him like an unwanted reflection. 

Monsieur Lazhar is not a totally comforting film, nor a depressing one. It shows both kids and adults as they are, both can be petty and conniving or driven to uplift the human spirit. By the end of the film, Lazhar emerges as the biggest kid of all, in the best sense of the word. The one hug in the film is like an enveloping exclamation point that welcomes both the imagination of a childhood and its sadnesses.

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