Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Oscar also-ran MONSIEUR LAZHAR proves a winner nonetheless; a short Q&A with talented filmmaker Philippe Falardeau

In the yearly Best Foreign-Language Film sweepstakes, it is pleasant, of course, to win. (Among other things, this nets your movie more money at the box-office.) Sometimes, though, it's enough just to have been nominated. So it is with the lovely, delicate and deeply-felt little French-Canadian movie MONSIEUR LAZHAR, which, in other years, might have been a shoo-in for the coveted award. Less convoluted and challenging than the French-Canadian nominated movie of two years ago, Incendies (that ought to have won that year's award, rather than the more obvious and less challenging film that did win, In a Better World), Monsieur Lazhar contents itself with exploring the event and aftermath when something terrible happens in an elementary school and an unusual teacher volunteers to help the students and administration pick up the pieces.

Adapted (and changed quite a bit --see interview below-- from the one-man play by Évelyne de la Chenelière on which it was based) and directed by Philippe Falardeau (shown at right), the movie is so special in its own way that it does not compare to any other film about the school environ-ment that I can recall. The reason for this, I think, is that, while it deals with learning, cooperation, the student/teacher relationship, as well as a number of other weighty matters -- life, death and immigration --  so beautifully and seamlessly does it integrate all this that we come away from the movie utterly steeped in its grace but with no sense at all of having been "preached to," in the manner that so many movies about education tend to do. This, in itself, is no small accomplishment. Further, the film makes us more than a little optimistic about the state of public education. In Canada, at least. I wouldn't be surprised if Monsieur Lazhar didn't lead to increased emigration by parents of young children to that nicer, northern clime.

As is often true, the element of surprise is integral to this film, just as it is to little boy Simon -- beautifully played by Émilien Néron, above, center) who, early on, discovers something he should never have to view. While all the children in the class are affected by what has happened, some -- like Simon and his friend Alice (Sophie Nélisse, below) -- are more involved, as we soon learn, than are many of their classmates.

Into this suddenly fraught mix steps the title character, an Algerian immigrant teacher with some major problems of his own, played by a simply wonderful actor Mohamed Fellag (who sometimes goes simply by the name Fellag), shown below, and who has been seen here in two films that had but very brief runs: the crack Algerian War film Intimate Enemies, in theaters, and Dernier étage gauche gauche, a delightful social comedy shown at last year's Rendez-vous with French Cinema (click and scroll way down). M. Fellag understands the beauty of quietude. You'll be hard put to recall a simpler, quieter performance that has run any deeper.

M. Lazhar offers to stand in for a missing teacher, and since this will at least partially relieve the situation, the school's chief administrator -- a smart, layered performance from the award-winning Danielle Proulx), below, left -- allows him to do so. Contrary to so many movies with socially-conscious themes, there are no villains here. Everyone is trying his/her best but often coming up short.

I hesitate to call Monsieur Lazhar a feel-good movie because of all the negative baggage associated with that term. And yet it is difficult to imagine any intelligent viewer leaving the theater not feeling good -- but in a mixed manner. It's not all beer and roses here, and yet M. Falardeau has managed to enlighten us. And lighten us. And light up the screen, both literally (see the interview below) and figuratively.

Monsieur Lazhar, 94 minutes, and another good one from that reliable distributor Music Box Films, opens this Friday, April 13, in some 23 cities across the country, from New York to Los Angeles. In the weeks to come it will open in dozens of other cities, so there is bound to be one near you. Click here and scroll down to see the entire listing of playdates, cities and theaters.


We meet with filmmaker Philippe Falardeau (below) on a bright afternoon in early spring, when the young writer/director is full of energy and excitement and is eager to talk. So we get right to it. There may be some spoilers ahead, and because Monsieur Lazhar is such a fine and moving film, TrustMovies suggests you see it first and only then read the interview. Below, TM's questions appear in boldface and M. Falardeau's answers in standard type.

For an also-ran, via the Academy Awards, your movie is maybe the best also-ran we’ve had. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had won. It’s a really wonderful movie. For me, as an American who looks at our education system and gets more worried every year, this was like dying and going to heaven and seeing a school that, for all the problems it may have, still looks like heaven in a way. Does this make sense to you? 

It makes sense because the premise of the film is so dramatic, when you think about it. It’s the story of an Algerian refugee who lost his family, and who then becomes a substitute teacher in a class room in which the regular teacher is suddenly…. gone. (We’re fudging here, to avoid spoilers). So with that kind of premsie, I wanted the film to be luminous, and so I worked on many levels to make the film that way. First of all, it’s about how I treated the subject and the different themes in the film. Second about how I treated the image, and how I worked with the director of photography, whom I told that we wanted the room to be flooded with daylight all the time. It has to be visually luminous to counterpart the darkness of the premise.

You know, that’s true: Even the very first time we see the school room, with the teacher….

It’s a kind of whitewash background of light. It is almost, I don’t want to say angel-like, but it’s almost like a vision. Also, the music: the pieces by Scarlati and Mozart and then Martin Léon, who did the musical score. It was important for me that the music would pull the film toward to light, putting the emphasis on the faces and on the drama. There is quite a lot of hope in the film, even if the things don’t end so well for M. Lazhar. I still think he is going to be all right.

Well, you know, he does gain his “status”… 

Yes, he does. But in the play – this is based on a play – he does not gain his status. It’s true that in the movie, he does. We tried it first to keep it as the play, in which he does not. But this didn’t work as well. It was not so much that it made the film depressing, but it made it more about the immigration status and system.

But it’s really about the education system. Is this a truthful view of the education system in French Canada? You are French Canadian, right?

Yes, I am.

Your English is very, very good. You must have learned it in school. 

Yes, I grew up in a small city in Quebec across the river from Ottawa. If you needed a summer job, you needed to speak English. So you needed to figure out fast if you wanted to work.

Are most French-Canadians bi-lingual? 

Yes, most are. Not all are fluent, and some do not speak at all English. We live in an enclosed provenance, where the main culture is still French. Coming back to your question of is the film truthful of the education system: It is based on truthful observation. I went back to school and asked teachers if they would let me sit in the classroom – in the back row where I used to sit 35 years ago. When you do this, you realize that some things have changed and others have not. Kids are still kids, and the curriculum has changed a little bit, but the school is probably more bureaucratized in a way.

We get this all in your film. But it does not come off as evil, or even wrong.

There are no good or bad guys in my film; The antagonism comes from within every character – their own demons, their own greed, their own sense of guilt. This is based on a one-man play, and so, in the play, you have to imagine all the other characters. The play is very poetic but it does not have to be so truthful about the other characters.

Boy – the movie in no way reminded me of a play and certainly not a one-man play!

I say all this because we owe it to the playwright. His main character was there and it touched me with the sense of humanity and his dignity. I have always been interested in the subject of immigration, but every time I came up with a subject, it was always too didactic for my taste. This time I thought, Oh, wow -- immigration is not the real topic, but he is still an immigrant, so this does bring interest and adds pertinence to the story.

It is also nice to see a character who is Muslim and that we can love and identify with so well. I just saw The Assault – which is finally opening here, and that deals with Muslim terrorists, which are the kind of Muslims we get to see much more often than we do the more normal variety. So it was wonderful to see another kind of Muslim in this film. I am anti-religion usually, and particualry anti-religion when I see religion used as a kind of ploy or excuse for terrorism. Here, you give us a richly nuanced character we can believe in and care about.

Using this character it allowed us to explore many themes. Usually in a film, it’s one subject. You don’t want to overcrowd the film with stuff. But school is like that. Because this is where life occurs.

And you don’t show us all the school kids equally. They all seem real, even the little we see of some, and the lot we see of others.

I think this comes from my own childhood memories and observation. I wanted the kids to have their own point of view in this film – which is equally important to the main character’s point of view. In the play obviously, it is only his POV. So we are going to have several points of view here. The young girl is barely there in the play, and then only through Lazhar’s eyes, but the young boy is not there at all.


I needed to invent the boy to create some kind of tension in the film. The film is quite uneventful. There is no tension at all, really.

Not past that opening scene….

We are just following and observing these people, as the months go by. You get this extra bonus having a character who has lived through some pretty dramatic stuff, and we can see who we are and what the system is like thru this outsider person. This makes you feel realize all of a sudden how fragile it all is. We take for granted our right and everything, and sometimes we have an attitude where we are a little cautious about the immigrant because they seem like…

The other?

Yes, the other. We think: Who he is, what does he bring, what are his intentions? We know nothing abut his past. But here, we can learn this. Even though this is so painful for him to reveal. He wants to help the children and he is so obsessed with helping the kids to grieve that he forgets his own grieving. And eventually the children will help him grieve.

You also made Congorama, right (a still from which is shown below)?


I saw that years ago. 

You did?! Where? At the New Director/New Films festival at MoMA?

No. It was also released here, maybe just in a limited form. 

Maybe. It might have been released here. But very small.

It also came out on DVD, or maybe only on videotape. That’s where I first saw it. But it has also been shown a lot on our two main art-film channels: IFC or Sundance. I can’t remember which.

Ah, Sundance. Yes!

So when I realized that you also made that movie, I thought – wow – people really had the  chance to see his other movie, too. Which is wonderful.

It’s a fun movie, a fun script. Built like a puzzle where the viewer has to put it all together. And this movie is also about the “other” -- about a Belgian engineer who comes to Quebec to try to find his roots.

Funny: Belgium is already “the other.” In a way – compared to France, right?

Yes. It’s a surreal country, with a surreal politics and government.; You know they just went for nearly a whole year and a quarter without even having a government. They just now have a government back again.

Really? Without any government? 

Yes. Because it is a parliamentary system in which the Queen has to ask for a party to form the government. But the elections make it nearly impossible to have a majority government. So they need to negotiate who is going to be in the cabinet, in the government. And the country almost went for a year and a half without any real government. So that means it was just a machine of bureaucracy that was running the country for all that time.

And it worked?!

Yes, exactly. And you have to ask: What other country could run like that: without the result being a war, revolution, blood. It’s incredible. But it worked!

And this just ended recently?

Yes, just recently. I would say a month and half ago. After more than 20 months.

I wonder why we didn’t hear about this?

It was in newspapers, but obviously it was not the main news.

Wow, I guess I missed it then. I wasn't combing The New York Times carefully enough. Well, somebody should make a documentary about this.

I hope somebody did! That country has always interested me -- Belgian society. Part of it is speaking French like us, and the others speak Flemish, while we in French-Canada have English and French. Sometime it doesn’t go too well, this two-language relationship. Not here nor there. So there are similarities with Belgium and Canada.

  (The publicist tells us we have time for two more questions.) 

Is this the poster for America? (It’s shown at the beginning of this post.)

Yes. It’s for the American market. The French-Canadian poster (below) was very different. It had the shot of the teacher, from the back showing a fish on his back. This was irrelevant to the American market because it’s about what happens on April Fool’s Day in school – the kids put a fish on the back of each teacher. Because fish is also the world for “fool”

Fish? Poisson? 

Yes, and that also means fool – in Quebec.

But not in France?

No, only in French Canada. So that poster would have been lost on the American market. And also we know that the fish here in American is often used as a religious symbol. And we did not want that. I am not sure I like this American poster. It may be too cute.

A little too feel-good? 

Yes, too feel-good.

Well, this one is a very nice poster. Very ‘luminous,’ as you mentioned earlier. And having seen the movie, this poster does reflect your film very well, I think. 

I don’t want it to look like some kind of family film.

No, and yet it is a family film. Not the usual kind, but it is one that all families should see.

Ah. In that sense, yes.

What are you doing right now? Any new project in the works? 

Right now I am touring a lot of countries, doing PR for this film. All over the world: New Zealand, Japan, Spain, Austria, France, Germany. 25 different countries. I am not doing all 25, but when Japan invited me, I said, Oh, sure – I am going!

Also right now, I am hoping to go back to a script I wrote a draft of last September -- a political comedy. I am also entertaining others scripts – and thinking about directing a movie not written by me. I have now an agent here in the US who is helping me out.

Congorama was written by you? And M. Lazhar was adapted by you?

Yes, and my other film -- It’s Not Me, I Swear -- was also adapted by me, from another book.

The publicist gives us the “end it” sign, and so we thank this very energetic, talkative and talented young director for his time. And we wish him well for the success here in the US of his new film. It may not have won the Oscar, but it’s a winner, nonetheless.

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