TIFF 2011 Preview: Monsieur Lazhar

Continuing my series of previews of films playing at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I’ve chosen another Canadian film, announced yesterday at TIFF’s press conference. Director Philippe Falardeau knocked me out a few years back with C’est pas moi, je le jure! (It’s Not Me, I Swear!), a nostalgic portrait of a young troublemaker that managed to be sweet even as it detailed some rather horrific misbehaviour. I’m hopeful that Falardeau’s new film, Monsieur Lazhar will be able to blend the sentiment and the grit just as effectively. It will have its Canadian premiere at TIFF, after playing internationally this week at the Locarno Film Festival.

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Like his previous film, this one is also an adaptation. In this case, it’s from Bachir Lazhar, a play by Evelyne de la Chenelière. Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar takes over an elementary school class still grieving for their previous teacher, who has committed suicide. Gradually, we discover that, in addition to helping his students work though their grief, Monsieur Lazhar is dealing with his own personal tragedy.

Falardeau is again working with children, but I trust that he’ll portray the students as real characters, working their way through unfamiliar and frightening territory. As someone who trained to be a teacher, I have always loved films about teachers and their students, from corny stuff like Les Choristes (The Chorus) to more gritty stuff like Entre les murs (The Class) and Être et avoir (To Be and To Have). And isn’t it strange that the first three films that came to mind are all in the French language as well.

There’s something moving in seeing not just the transmission of knowledge from teacher to student, but the formation of emotional connections as well. In many cases, teachers act as surrogate parents for children who have less-than-ideal family lives. Falardeau points out something with which I agree very strongly:

[T]here is…another dimension quite dear to me that surfaced in the film, although it wasn’t in the play. It’s the entire question of the codification of relationships between children and adults in schools. Over the years, we have established rules that forbid adults from touching children, no matter what the circumstances, even if it is just to “put sunscreen on their back,” as the gym teacher character comments. We very well understand the reasons behind these rules and what’s at stake with them. But the result is that teachers, parents and even the children walk on eggs whenever it comes to showing a certain form of affection or closeness. The question is extremely delicate and constitutes a pivotal moment in the film. I think the film speaks a great deal about this, imperceptibly at first, until the end where the subject matter becomes explicit.

In my opinion, the filmmakers from the province of Québec have been creating Canada’s strongest cinema for a long time now, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing more from Falardeau and other young directors from “la belle province.”


  • Sunday September 11, 9:45pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
  • Wednesday September 14, 3:30pm – AMC 7
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