Monday 30 April 2012

Yo teach: "Monsieur Lazhar"

The gentle French-Canadian drama Monsieur Lazhar, another of this year's Oscar foreign film nominees slipping into cinemas to no particular fanfare, gets its punchiest material out of the way early, as two pre-teens at a school in inner-city Montreal discover the body of their beloved female form tutor hanging from the rafters of her classroom. Thereafter, Philippe Falardeau's film busies itself tidying up any mess: the body is cut down, and the walls of the classroom are being repainted when the bearded Algerian of the title (the engaging Fellag) walks into the headmistress's office. Citing what he claims were nineteen years of educational experience in his homeland, M. Lazhar lands the job of teaching replacement a little too easily; even School of Rock, fast becoming an unlikely touchstone for this sort of thing, knew it had to put us at ease with a couple of well-placed jokes.

I think we're meant to take it on trust that a film this impeccably middlebrow wouldn't go anywhere too discomforting, as indeed proves to be the case. Instead, we watch as Lazhar slowly gets his feet under his late colleague's desk, making ripples rather than waves en route. In some ways, it's the decaf version of Laurent Cantet's Palme d'Or-winning The Class, itself nominated in Oscar's Foreign Film category a few years ago. The pupils are younger and less bolshy, granted - they make mischief, not trouble - but the classroom scenes adhere to a similar, back-and-forth rhythm: Lazhar learns not to inflict Balzac on his charges, while their pleas for him to teach them something of himself - insistently waved off - are interrupted by a sudden nosebleed. Where the films differ is in their content. The Class, seizing upon the school as a microcosm of multicultural France, found conflict and disharmony (and great potential) almost everywhere Cantet pointed his camera. By contrast, Monsieur Lazhar is all a bit too, well, Canadian: the worst that happens to the protagonist, even after he smacks one of his pupils aboot the head, is that someone plants a sticker of a fish on the back of his jacket without his noticing. 

Falardeau crafts some nicely unstressed business between Lazhar and Abdel, the one kid in this class who gets his teacher's asides in Arabic, and it's hard to take too unkindly against a film where the school play takes in the opening of the Suez Canal - but then the reason this is funny is precisely because it's a dash of incongrous, even ambitious drama in a film otherwise content to muddle along in the minor key of an afterschool special on Why We Have Different Surnames. Altogether too neat in its paralleling of teacher and pupils - both, it turns out, mourning the loss of a woman close to them - Monsieur Lazhar needed some greater disruptive element: the at-the-blackboard presentations in The Class highlighted and accentuated real-world ructions, but here we're left with an angelic blonde Pollyanna who insists "My school is beautiful. Maybe not the most beautiful, but it's mine."

Monsieur Lazhar opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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