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Exploring teacher suicide

Monsieur Lazhar (M). Director: Philippe Falardeau. Starring: Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron. 95 minutes

What makes a good teacher? French-Canadian drama Monsieur Lazhar offers two contrasting examples. The first is characterised by selfishness and absence: a teacher, after a period of prolonged stress, commits suicide in her empty classroom before school. The second, by presence and selflessness: Algerian migrant Bachir Lazhar's (Fellag) own experience of loss gives him something to offer the students that his predecessor so abandoned.

The film is not harsh in its judgment of the woman whose suicide in the opening scene hangs like a pall over the remainder. She was a popular teacher, loved by her students and colleagues. Her suicide is revealed to be the result of an arguably hysterical attitude toward physical contact between teachers and students, where a consoling hug can be misconstrued as abuse. The frailty and fallibility of humanity is not overlooked here.

But her popularity heightens the magnitude of the loss, especially among her own students. Lazhar senses their anger and confusion, evidenced by a throway line here, a glum expression there, an occasional unanswerable question. As he coaxes them forwards in their studies (his methods are unorthodox, for reasons that later become clear) he also feels compelled to turn back to the tragedy that looms but is largely ignored.

This compulsion is resisted by his fellow teachers, including the school principal. There are echoes here of institutional cover-ups of abuse. Their attitude is favourably cast, as being about protecting the reputation and memory of a colleague and a friend rathat than shielding the needs of an institution. But well-intentioned or not, it is misguided, as it loses sight of the children whose wellbeing should be the first priority.

Details of Lazhar's own past are revealed gradually and to great emotional impact. They give shape to the sadness that resides beneath his warm demeanour. They are characterised by loss and grief, which explains his particular insight into and interest in the children's emotional plight. Ultimately it is in giving of himself — encountering his students as fellow hurting human beings — that he can help them, and can himself be helped.

Fellag gives an exceptional, soulful performance as Lazhar, but it is two of the child actors, Néron and Nélisse, who shine. They portray Simon, who discovered his teacher's body and feels responsible for her death, and Alice, a gifted student who can intellectualise and articulate her feelings about the loss. Their performances, under director Falardeau's guidance, embody complementary versions of childhood grief with warmth and authenticity. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, education, suicide



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