Director Philippe Falardeau makes Monsieur Lazhar look like child’s play
Monsieur Lazhar gets off to an auspicious start as a young pupil in a Montreal elementary school discovers one of his teachers has killed herself. Helping the students address their grief, amid the myriad other growing pains all children must face, is a new teacher named Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant with his own secret history of loss.
While Lazhar may bear more than a passing resemblance to other French films about schoolchildren and the teachers who play surrogate parenthood to them, like Truffaut’s Small Change and Laurent Cantet’s The Class, Lazhar stands out from the pack by the startling maturity with which director Philippe Falardeau’s young cast handles the material.
There’s no trick to coaxing adult performances from young actors, nor having them deliver lines whose meaning they don’t understand. “There are good and bad child actors,” Falardeau says, “and the good ones are amazing. I take time in the audition process, meeting them, giving them to adjust.” Parents were not allowed on set (“children look to them for approval” or “find it difficult to do something in front of their parents”), but Falardeau also had a coach on the set who knew where Falardeau “wanted to take the kids” emotionally.
“Children are in the seduction business,” Falardeau added. “They’re all very pretty to look at, but for me what is real is what the children sound like, not what they look like. I’ll close my eyes, and if I can’t hear what they’re saying coming out of the mouth of a real child, they need more work.”
Falardeau sure seems to have gotten the sound right. Lazhar, which opens here on Friday, has been lavished with accolades. It swept Quebec’s Jutra awards and won six Genie Awards, Canada’s version of the Oscar, including honors for Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay. Falardeau was also the recipient of the latter award, having adapted Lazhar from a one-man show, Bashir Lazhar, penned by his friend, Évelyne de la Chenelière.
“The play wasn’t about immigration, but had this mixture of humanity, dignity and fragility,” Falardeau, who usually writes his own original material, recalled about seeing the show. “A light bulb went off, and I started imagining other characters in this world. I was drafting a first version of the script as I watched the play!”
Lazhar took Falardeau into emotional zones that he had not ventured before, but the writer-director says he was ready for the challenge. “I ask myself three questions about any movie I work on: ‘Is the story important? Will it interest others? And can I stick with it for three years?’” He believes many relate to Lazhar because of their own experiences with the school system and that there is too much regulation within the system. “People want to prevent the inevitable, but shit will happen!” he added. “I know why teachers might say ‘Should I hug a kid or not?’ but we’ve gone too far. People need human contact.”
As a result, Falardeau’s movie has hit a more universal chord. Its awards weren’t limited to those bestowed in its mother country; this year, Lazhar was one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. (Iran’s A Separation, which Falardeau saw and liked, ultimately won the prize).
“You’re critical of the Oscars, and then you get nominated, and it’s hard not to get excited,” he said of the experience. Right before the nominations, right before they announce the award, you want it, but you hate yourself for wanting it,” he said with a laugh. He says the ceremony went by very quickly, but he recalls standing on the red carpet between Glenn Close and Rooney Mara, who had impressed him very much in the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and who would like to work with on a future movie. He is hopeful that the international exposure of Lazhar will bring him more leverage, and considers the possibility of making an English language film.
Falardeau also has another memory of Oscar night. “I was sitting near Steven Spielberg, who also didn’t win. I wanted to go over and introduce myself and say, ‘We have something in common – we’re both losers!’”
With instincts like his, Falardeau might just get another chance to attend the big show. But he shouldn’t count on staying seated if he does.
More information on Monsieur Lazhar can be found at http://www.musicboxfilms.com/monsieur-lazhar.
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