Unacceptable Truth and Useful Lies: Monsieur Lazhar, a French language film about childhood, death, grief, and mentoring

Is lying ever a moral option?

by Daniel Garrett Volume 17, Issue 9 / September 2013 10 minutes (2408 words)

Monsieur Lazhar
Director Phillippe Falardeau
Les Films Christal/Microscope/Seville Pictures
Music Box Films, 2011

Monsieur Lazhar is a small story with dark, deep reverberations that may have the power to heal: it is about the response of young children to the death of their teacher, a woman whose attempt to soothe a young boy with a hug was misinterpreted, and it is about the authoritative but wounded man who replaces the deceased teacher as an instructor.

Who are we? The person we think ourselves to be, honest and intelligent and sensitive and brave and generous, or the person the world recognizes us as being, awkward, secretive, fearful, and stingy, really quite ordinary? Creator or destroyer? Civilized or decadent? Professional or lazy? Well-groomed or stinking? Essential or unnecessary? What if one’s honesty is received as cruelty or subversion, and one’s sensitivity as weakness? If our best qualities, and our talents, are not perceived by the world, are they real; and if real, are they of consequence? What is the truth about us and our experience? Are lies acceptable—sometimes, or never? Are there times when lies, like artifice, like fiction, are able to tell a unique truth?

Monsieur Lazhar is a film about relationships, and everything in it—the plain, small school building, the classrooms with pictures on the wall and dioramas on the shelves and displays hanging from the ceilings, the cluttered homey apartments, and the snowy streets outside—and the natural, slow movement of the camera, capturing a world of intelligent, simple, witty people, are part of that fundamental vision. Written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, Monsieur Lazhar is based on a play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere. The production designer is Emmanuel Frechette, and the director of photography is Ronald Plante, with editing by Stephane Lafleur, and music by Martin Leon. “Deceptively simple and straightforward, Monsieur Lazhar resembles a clear, clean glass of water: transparent, utterly devoid of gratuitous flavorings or frou-frou, and all the more bracing and essential for it,” wrote Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post (April 27, 2012), calling the film a study in boundaries.

The film opens on a Montreal elementary school playground, when one boy leaves to go gather the milk for his class and finds his teacher dead in the classroom, having hung herself, something one other child, a girl, sees too. The adults want both to address the shock and grief of the school’s children, making a school psychologist accessible, and to limit the effect of grief on the students and the expression of that grief: the adults want control. The classroom in which the teacher Martine died is repainted, though the principal finds it hard to get a substitute teacher, the principal’s cigarette smoking indicating her stress—until an Algerian man, Bachir Lazhar, walks into her office, asking for the job; and the students go on meeting there, after the room is repainted. Bachir Lazhar claims to have taught for nineteen years in Algiers, the capital of Algeria, and says he loves children and is flexible about schedule. He is put quickly into the classroom, and finds the children sad, vulnerable, but a bit cynical too (the film viewer hears their skeptical assessment of another man, the coach, whom they doubt can even write: but when we, in the film audience, hear the man talk about the distance he, a physical education teacher, is instructed to keep from his students, the inevitable foolishness of his position is clear). Monsieur Lazhar, whose first name Bachir means bearer of good news and last name Lazhar means lucky, is recovering from his own loss, the death of his wife and children; and he relishes being in the classroom and raises the standards in there, returning the desks to straight rows rather than Martine’s communal semi-circle, and presenting more demanding material, genuine literary work—that of Balzac. Monsieur or Mister Lazhar is played by the actor and comedian Mohamed Fellag, whose limber body is topped by a warmly sad and weary face, a man about whom The New Republic’s film critic Stanley Kauffmann took particular pleasure in asserting, “The whole film is a pleasing showpiece for him” (in the May 24, 2012 magazine issue; online May 4), before adding, “Though not known here, his name is Fellag, and he is vastly experienced in Algerian theater and film, along with appearances in France and elsewhere. (He also publishes short stories and novels.)”

Teacher Martine's Suicide

Two of the children in Monsieur Lazhar’s gorgeously diverse class are friends, a boy and a girl, Simon and Alice, the ones who saw the teacher’s lifeless body. Alice (Sophie Nelisse), whose mother travels for business, likes geography and to hear of foreign places. Simon (Emilien Neron) is a photographer, and he had caused the late teacher trouble after she, Martine, hugged him and he, discomforted, reported it. Alice recalls that betrayal, and acts as a conscience for Simon. There is a great deal of conscientiousness and cruelty at the age. When Monsieur Lazhar reprimands a boy by tapping the back of his head, that is reported. This being the kind of progressive women-run school that respectfully discusses Native American culture and spirituality, the teacher is soon handed a booklet detailing the students’ rights. (Schools acknowledge different parts of the mind, spirit, and body. Does the larger society?) The educational content of the class acknowledges where the children are in their lives and provides a metaphor with which they can be seen: as one of their vocabulary words, the class discusses a chrysalis, the pupa of a butterfly, a protective form of becoming, a transformation. When Alice reads a paper about her school and mentions her teacher’s suicide, which Alice perceives as a violent act, her friend Simon feels implicated.

Simon and Alice

How much of what we see is no more than a matter of interpretation? What is the value of truth, and how much responsibility can a lie bear? When the new Algerian teacher is warned about touching or hitting children, he smoothly denies having hit a child. Is that a lie, or simply the fact that he did not see an affectionate but correcting tap on the head as a hit? (When you come from a culture in which someone might be stoned to death for a moral crime, it may be hard to take such a tap seriously—or to even remember it.) Among the children, Simon refuses the accusation he thinks Alice is making, but he comes to admit that there is more truth in it than he wants to accept. Has Simon’s misrepresentation of the truth—his teacher hugged him, rather than kissed him, as he had claimed—caused his teacher her life; and has his evasion of responsibility damaged his friendship with Alice?

Who would approve a lie to save a boy’s masculine pride? Yet, are there other times when a lie is acceptable? Is it permissible to lie, as the biblical prophet Jeremiah did, to save one’s own life; or as Michal did to protect someone else, David, from being slain? Of course, scriptural pages can be read in any number of ways, their authority invoked in circumstances the authors could not have imagined. In discussing lying and its moral weight, Tim C. Mazur (Issues in Ethics, Fall 1993, Vol. 6, No. 1; online at the Santa Clara University’s ethics site, 2012), cited Immanuel Kant’s insistence that lying is always wrong, as it contravenes the dignity, freedom, and rationality of both self and others: “Lies are morally wrong, then, for two reasons. First, lying corrupts the most important quality of my being human: my ability to make free, rational choices. Each lie I tell contradicts the part of me that gives me moral worth. Second, my lies rob others of their freedom to choose rationally.”

Is there an absolute or eternal truth? The complexities and contradictions of living sabotage beautiful ideas. Many of us think of ourselves as living within paradigms of top and bottom, left and right, good and evil, smart and dumb, rich and poor, black and white, straight and queer: and the evidence that justifies our views are not always sound enough to sustain the rigorous attentions of others. Sometimes strengths are seen as weaknesses, and weaknesses as strengths. Our interpretations are intended to provide clarity and logic, understanding; but they are intended also for comfort, to give us grounding in the world, frequently protecting our ego, heart, pride, or faults—and if those interpretations lack balancing qualities, such as self-awareness or generosity or restraint, they can endanger us or others. The children under Bachir Lazhar’s charge are learning to balance what they think and feel with the world around them. “The classroom here serves as it often does as a microcosm of society, but freshly so,” wrote Wendy Weinstein in Film Journal International (April 10, 2012), “with the ideal of learning to tolerate and even welcome challenges to the familiar (other cultures, ideas, the emotions of the person sitting next to you), while struggling with random acts of cruelty and contemporary taboos, such as a teacher hugging a student. Through his cogent, thoughtful dialogue and sensitive direction, particularly of the children, Falardeau renders both the global and personal complexity of one school’s cast of characters…” Weinstein called the film, featuring Algerian French and Montreal French, a valentine to the French language.

We learn, before the school principal does, that Bachir Lazhar was a civil servant then a restaurateur rather than a teacher, when we see him at an immigration hearing: it was his wife who was a longtime teacher and author. Lazhar’s wife had been threatened by traditionalists for the content of her work—as facts, ideas, and perceptions, when organized into a coherent statement, when perceived as an asserted truth, are frequently heard to contain an accusation, a call for change, an assault on tradition—and the family’s apartment suffered an attack, the apartment fire killing Lazhar’s wife and their children. To a skeptical immigration officer, the widower Lazhar relays his family’s demise with tears in his eyes. He connects his own grief to that of the children in his care, though does not want to share the particulars of his life; and he wants to distribute Alice’s balanced and thoughtful paper about the school to others in the school, but the principal thinks it gives offense: the principal thinks Alice’s identification of Martine’s suicide as a violent act is an act of violence against Martine. The truth causes disturbances in the mind; and repression of the truth can still the disturbance. Bachir Lazhar’s instincts are honest and intelligent—they want to go where the ignorance is, or where the wound is. He instructs a boy, Boris, who is pampered, sheltered, because of his headaches and nosebleeds, to go outside for fresh air, and the boy enjoys that excursion, playing with a small flock of birds. Some parents appreciate the new teacher’s unique response, and others do not and are intolerant of any criticism of their children.

One hesitates to say how promising the girl who plays Alice seems: there is intelligence and sensitivity in her face, but also something sensuous. Many of these children have the smooth, open and expectant beauty, and easy joy, that can be found only in the very young—and it seems enough for them simply to be; consequently, the persuasive quality of their performances is more charming, impressive, and moving. “The young talent in the film is extraordinary, neither precious nor overdramatic,” declared Canada’s National Post’s Melissa Leong (January 26, 2012). Melissa Leong wrote of the film’s young people, “They grieve their teacher’s death in their own ways. Simon wears the tired, crushed face of someone who has suffered more than the mind can mend and he reacts in anger. Meanwhile, Lazhar’s favourite student, Alice (Sophie Nélisse), watches him with her huge blue eyes, and soberly asks what everyone wonders: Why? Why in the classroom? Why for the children to find?”


Simon thinks the teacher Martine knew it would be his day to get the milk, and that he would be the one to find her. After Simon shares a photograph he took of Martine—on which he has drawn both a noose and angel wings—there is a fight among students, and a crisis at the school. As the children are monitored for aggression—and as the adults are monitored for inappropriate attention to them—the principal and teachers discuss how to handle Simon. Is Simon to be understood and supported, or punished and expelled? It is obvious that instinct as much as anything will go into the decision. (The Algerian teacher, Monsieur Lazhar, has his class read a fable about right and might, and asks them to write their own fable.) Ultimately, Simon admits that Martine had not kissed him, only hugged him when he cried, but that he did not like it—he did not want her to act like his mother. That sense of the limits of intimacy, of boundaries, registers an interesting distinction between teacher and parent, as it is obviously hard to know when teachers are too close and not close enough to their students, something some of the teachers discuss. Speaking, before dinner, at the home of a woman teacher who may be attracted to him, Bachir Lazhar says that he has the nightmare of the children always sounding like children. He thinks the classroom is a place of friendship, work, and courtesy, not a place to infect people with your despair—which he seems to think Martine did, and which he refused to do by sharing his personal pain: like a disciplined artist, his pain is the source of his compassion, rather than his message; and yet his resistance to sharing that history cuts him off from starting a new relationship with a woman, a fellow teacher. When Bachir Lazhar is to leave the school, he wants to say goodbye to the class, unlike Martine; and he reads his own story about a chrysalis, allowing the students to correct his French, and, before Monsieur Lazhar goes, he and Alice hug, a violation of the rules. The beautiful and possibly tragic irony is that Bachir Lazhar actually is a teacher, a very good one: he told a lie that revealed a truth.

The hug: a lie or the truth?

(Article submitted November 2012)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 17, Issue 9 / September 2013 Film Reviews   canadian cinema   phillippe falardeau   quebec cinema