A Film That Misses The Mark On The Teacher/Student Relationship
Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando
Teaching is perhaps the most underrated profession in the world. The greatest teachers inspire us to do even more than our very best and they leave a lasting impression on us; They make a difference in our lives. This idea is at the center of Monsieur Lazhar, a film that tries, unsuccessfully, to show what it means to be a teacher in our present time.
The film opens in Montreal with a troubled boy, Simon (Émilien Néron), seeing his teacher Martine (Héléna Laliberté) hanging lifelessly from the ceiling of her classroom. The rest of the film shows how the students deal with their teacher's death. In addition to Simon, Alice (Sophie Nélisse) managed to get a glimpse of Martine as well and becomes the central voice for what all of the students are feeling. Desperate for a replacement teacher, the school principle, Madame Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx) hires Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Saïd Fellag), an Algerian immigrant desperate for a teaching position. He, of course, is not Martine and the students have a tough time getting used to his teaching methods. He rearranges their desks from a semicircle to straight rows, makes them do dictations on stories they find boring, and slaps a student in the back of the head for throwing something at another student. Lazhar quickly learns from Madame Vaillancourt that the relationship between teacher and student forbids physical contact of any kind, including a hug or encouraging tap on the back, and especially hitting a student for misbehaving.
The film is trying to show how hard it is to be a good teacher with the rules and restrictions that we currently have, but it's almost afraid to really delve into those issues and bring them to the surface. For instance, Lazhar tries unsuccessfully throughout the film to get Madame Vaillancourt to let the students talk about death openly in the school. While she wants them to discuss their feelings with the school's designated child psychiatrist (Nicole-Sylvie Lagarde), she does not wish for Martine's suicide to be open and continued conversation within the school. In very much the same manner, the film is almost afraid to let issues like the subject of death or hugging a student be open for discussion. They're mentioned, but not dealt with, which takes away from the film's impact.
In addition, I never fully believed that Lazhar was making that big of an impact in his students' lives. He tries to inspire them to do more, but because their former teacher's suicide is still fresh in their minds, he never quite reaches them. Alice is the only student of his that seems to be taken with him and he later admits that she is in fact his favorite. He learns through his students how he can be a better teacher, but we don't get that scene that I feel the film needed. Yes, by this point it may seem cliché, but if ever a film needed the famous teacher and students finally understanding each other and learning to work together scene, it's Monsieur Lazhar.
To be clear, I'm not saying this is a bad film. It's a good movie that could have been great if the filmmakers had just explored the issues with teachers and students a little better. I hoped this film would bring something new to the teacher and student films like Dead Poets Society, which isn't to say that it had to be that film. It felt like an okay addition to this genre of films instead of something fresh and original.