Simple cinema is seemingly a thing far gone from movie making, wherein a post-digital understanding of the world has resulted in what could aptly be describe as visceral overload. While works like Fight Club and Inception have cemented themselves as deserved contemporary classics, even if a bit problematic in the narrative department, their reconsideration of the forms of filmmaking have become a thing to recreate, an endeavor which has more or less proven poorly executed. Simple cinema when set up against the aforementioned films would lead one to assume that my relationship to the movie is one without any degree of profound consideration, simple suggesting mediocrity. This is absolutely not the case, simplicity is perhaps the most audacious thing a person can aim for in a film and is equally the most difficult to execute with any assured success. I think of works like Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar or the surprising restraint of something like Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner when discussing this idea. The story is allowed to breath unfold and move to a space of deep introspection for all those who engage with its products, both of these films proving that when purity and perfection are pursued even the simple can become monumental. I would argue that the same emerges in a work like Monsieur Lazhar, one of the foreign breakout films of 2011 and the wonderful production from the play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere and the direction of Philippe Falardeau. Dealing with nothing short of one of the deepest, most troubling issues in human existence, the film exudes a certain poetic realism that affords any viewer a constant movement through the range of emotions whether they be unbridled joy or devastating sadness, but after all, this is the human reality and one often shunned by popcorn cinematic escapism. I know that this film received an unprecedented amount of praise from critics and faired quite well in the indie/art house circuit, which is fine and well, but Monsieur Lazhar possesses such an earnest approach to what troubles both young persons and adults that it becomes required viewing for everyone willing to sit down and read a work involving subtitles.
Monsieur Lazhar is set in the oppressively cold space of Montreal, where a group of students begin their day at school anew and the young Simon (Émilien Néron) being tasked with preparing the milk for his classmates breakfast. Upon retrieving the necessary amount he approaches the classroom only to discover that his teacher has hung herself leading to chaos emerging in the space of the school despite an attempt to quell the panic by the principal Mme Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx). In the midst of trying to find a new teacher one Bachir Lazhar (Mohammed Fellag) emerges, inquiring about the opening. Though initially dismissive, Vaillancourt hires Lazhar in hopes that the instant presence will help the classroom return to some degree of sanity. Lazhar immediately takes control of the class in a very professorial manner, establishing high academic expectations for the students, much to their chagrin, excluding one student Alice (Sophie Nélisse) that finds his teaching style engaging, made all the more so by his being from the farm warmer locale of Algeria. Indeed, it is Lazhar's former life in Algeria that makes for an intriguing narrative twist for it was not him, but his late wife who spent her life as a teacher, become the victim of a terrorist attack after speaking out for the rights of women. Burned in an apartment fire, along with her children, this death has led to Lazhar moving to Quebec in hopes of attaining refugees asylum. Regardless of this issue, Lazhar becomes a point of admiration, even if begrudgingly, for the students and one of desire for a fellow teacher Claire (Brigitte Poupart), who repeatedly makes sexual advances towards him, despite his clear disinterest and awareness of her exoticization of all things foreign. Considerign that the students are only receiving occasional guidance from a school appointed psychologist, the death of their former teach by suicide constantly threatens the camaraderie of the classroom and when confrontation finally does occur, after a few violent outbursts it proves to be a moment of catharsis for not only the students but Lazhar himself who had been suppressing his own loss. Despite receiving refugee status, the knowledge by the bureaucracy of the school of his non-creditions, leads to Lazhar being forced to step down, but this is not before one final day in which he delivers to his students a fable in hopes of teaching them a final lesson, also learning himself in the process.
I was fortunate to see this at a screening embracing French and francophone cinema here in Columbia, which included the presence of the very gracious and humble Danielle Proulx who advocated for the films message over any sort of pretense regarding her own experiences acting. I find this a great way to consider this film, particularly since it is so loaded with notions that one's identity is predicated on a paradigm of constantly shifting frames of reference, including but not limited to gender, race, class, nation and age. As I know I have mentioned on this blog before, intersectionality is the frame of theoretical thought that considers these layers of identity and the ways in which such schemas affect ones privilege or oppression in a society. While there are far more inquisitive and experimental works considering this issue, I am unaware of one quite as minimalist and simply stated as what occurs in Monsieur Lazhar, again the notion of simplicity not implying a lack of depth or detail. One only needs to consider the space of the school in the film to see how varied identities are colliding in unusual and often problematic ways. The most obvious is, of course, the film's title character whose movement from Algeria to Quebec only affords him two points of previous privilege that of masculinity and French language, all other points of privilege are challenged when he must be constantly reminded of his difference, particularly in regards to cultural understandings, never mind the implications that come along with his own refugee status. Lazhar, however, is not the only person with intersections of identity, take the students for example, reflecting a surprisingly diverse group contingent on gender, race and class, even making specific note of nationality in the student introductions, Lazhar must constantly shift his understanding of the world to appropriate it to each students needs, whether it be one whose single mother often overlooks after school teaching or another whose parents are overly protective and unwilling to allow her shades of rebellion. Furthermore, he must constantly realize that even when his mother tongue is comforting a continual speaking in such language could prove dire to at least one student. Other issues such as women's employment, exoticization of the other, post-colonial history and global politics emerge in this film, all while also managing to attack the very perplexing issue of suicide.
Key Scene: The closing fable will move you in a profound way, unless you somehow manage to ignore the entire movie up to that point. However, even if that were the case the delivery by all the performers involved, paired with perfectly composed dialogue will still deeply resonate with even the most stone-hearted.
While this movie, undoubtedly, benefits from a group screening, it is available on Netflix Watch Instantly and is quite deserved of your time.