Almost everyone admires or loves Philippe Falardeau‘s Monsieur Lazhar (Music Box, 4.13), myself included. A 91% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Nominated for the 2011 Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar. Direct, simple, elegant, humane. And very movingly acted, especially by Mohamed Fellag (in the titular role) and young newcomer Sophie Nelisse, who’ll be Brigitte Fossey in a few years.
But the film has a small but significant elephant in the room. Other critics don’t seem to give a damn, but it’s a problem. For me anyway.
This film is about healing from guilt, trauma and death. Lazhar, a newly arrived Algerian teacher at a French elementary school, is recovering from his wife’s passing. And the kids in his class are reeling from the suicide of their teacher, a youngish woman who — get this — hanged herself in the classroom where she taught them. For all the students to see and freak out over. What kind of a person would do such a thing? Any teacher would know that committing suicide at home or somewhere off the school grounds would be ghastly enough for the students. But hanging yourself in a classroom?
Plus I found it completely bizarre that no one in the entire film so much as mentions what a malignant act this was. All they say is “poor sad teacher,” etc. I couldn’t get past this and felt certain distance from the film…sorry.
I talked about it with Falardeau last week on the phone. His screenplay is an adaptation of Evelyne de la Cheneliere‘s play, and he wondered about the hanging aspect, he said, but felt more or less roped into it. I asked him what kind of teacher would not only kill herself but do so in a way that would emotionally scar her students for life? When depressed people are approaching the act of killing themselves they’re swimming in a kind of insanity pool, he said, and they don’t really have their bearings. I don’t buy that. A suicidal teacher could be completely upside down with grief but she’d at least have the decency to kill herself in a way that would lessen the impact among her students — and not intensify it.