Lessons to learn
SOME subjects seem destined to make good movies. It’s hard to think of a really bad film about trains, for example — and I’m not forgetting the remake of Narrow Margin, or the lumbering contrivances of Murder on the Orient Express. Or take boxing — an ugly business that has inspired any number of great films from The Harder They Fall to Million Dollar Baby. Films set in schools seem to be another charmed species. I can think of any number of good ones and quite a few great ones, and audiences seem to love them.
My own favourite school film is Au Revoir, les Enfants, Louis Malle’s unforgettable insight into the Holocaust in France. But in Monsieur Lazhar, Malle’s masterpiece may have found a rival. This is a Canadian film, written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, set in a primary school in French-speaking Montreal, and at a certain level the themes are similar — prejudice, the power of compassion, the suffocating constraints of ideology. The atmosphere of school life is tellingly conveyed — school life being much the same everywhere — but Monsieur Lazhar is about many things apart from school, with multiple layers of meaning, and with striking political relevance to our own time.
Bachir Lazhar is a good-natured man in his 50s, a refugee from political persecution in Algeria. He’s played with disarming dignity and good humour by the Algerian actor Mohamed Said Fellag (identified simply as ‘‘ Fellag’’ in the credits). Turning up at the school one day, and using all his powers of
(M) ★★★✩✩ charm and persuasion, he wangles a job as a replacement teacher. It is by no means clear that M. Lazhar has had any formal teaching experience — we rather doubt it — but a sympathetic headmistress (Danielle Proulx) is prepared to give him a chance. He has his own artless (and doubtless unprofessional) ways of winning over his young charges, which will endear him equally to audiences.
He is soon to discover that Martine, the teacher whose place he has taken, has committed suicide in her classroom the night before M. Lazhar’s arrival, hanging herself from a waterpipe on the ceiling.
The film is about the effect of this tragedy on the lives of the children and those close to them. In particular, Falardeau focuses on the two children who have seen Martine’s body — Simon (Emilien Neron), whose task on that fateful morning was to deliver fresh milk to the classroom, and Alice (Sophie Nelisse), the lonely little girl who has glimpsed something awful through the classroom door.
The film hints constantly at ideas and meanings below the surface. The children are unforgettable, their unhappiness beautifully conveyed in performances of touching warmth and candour: But for all its sombre themes, Monsieur Lazhar is not a depressing film. It is charged with love and optimism. Will the children adjust to their suffering? Will M. Lazhar be granted residency in Canada as an asylum-seeker? Will he find work? His last action at the school is one of loving defiance of its rules of physical contact. It is an uplifting moment, and there are many others. This is one of the very best films of the year. WRITTEN and directed by Lynn Shelton, Your Sister’s Sister is what publicists now call a dram-com — not so much a rom-com but a comedy with dramatic elements, requiring us to take it seriously. The credits list a cast of 28, but really there is a cast of three — two sisters and a bloke, brought together in a confined space. And when the house they are sharing has only two beds, we can be sure that the comic (and dramatic) possibilities will be greatly enhanced.
This is a sophisticated American comedy built on evasions and misunderstandings. It’s about people turning up unexpectedly in the wrong places. We open with a party, a solemn affair in memory of Tom, who died a year earlier. The camera prowls around the room, much as it did in the opening scene of Beauty, and we observe the faces of the guests. After various tributes have been paid to Tom, his brother Jack (Mark Duplass) strikes a sour note by pointing out that his brother was only human and had his faults. This leaves everyone a little shocked. Iris (Emily Blunt), who was Tom’s lover, decides Jack must be in urgent need of rest and recuperation — more headspace, as she puts it — and invites him to spend time in her father’s getaway house in a pretty backwater of Washington state. Jack duly turns up on a bicycle to find the house already occupied by Iris’s sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), whose lesbian leanings prove no obstacle to her spending a night with Jack in one of the two beds.
When Iris arrives next morning, everyone is suspicious of everyone else, and for good reason. But the proprieties are observed, with Iris and Hannah sharing a bed for an exchange of sisterly confidences. The ironies and deceptions on which the story is built are deftly handled. I have been an admirer of Blunt since I first saw her in that lovely English film My Summer of Love, and she’s such a good actor that it never bothers us that she’s playing an American with an English accent. I’m not so sure about Jack (a rather crabby performance from Duplass), but if Iris is in love with him (even if Hannah doesn’t know it), we can’t help liking him. There are some dark moments and an agreeably ambivalent ending. By the time the film is over, Jack isn’t the only one needing extra headspace.
Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt in