Lessons to learn

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

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

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(M) ★★★★✩

(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.

Your Sis­ter’s Sis­ter

Mark Du­plass, Emily Blunt and Rose­marie DeWitt in

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