Fellag as Bachir Lazhar in Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar
(image courtesy of Music Box Films)

After receiving an Oscar-nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, playing festivals all over the world including Sundance and Toronto, and winning six Genie awards (Canada’s Oscar equivalent), Monsieur Lazhar is getting a stateside release from Music Box Films, opening April 13th in New York and various cities in California, with a national rollout to follow. Monsieur Lazhar, the latest film from acclaimed filmmaker Philippe Falardeau (Congorama, It’s Not Me, I Swear), is the story of a middle school class in Montreal, shaken by the suicide of a beloved teacher. Upon hearing of the school’s recent troubles, Monsieur Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) offers his services as a substitute teacher. Once hired, Monsieur Lazhar finds himself in an establishment in crisis and bringing emotional stability to a group of traumatized kids, while at the same time dealing with own immigrant experience and coming to terms with his own tragic past. I was recently able to sit down with Falardeau for an insightful chat in anticipation of the film’s US release. Here’s what Falardeau shared with me about adapting the screenplay from a one-man play, avoiding genre pitfalls, and crafting Monsieur Lazhar.

Jackson Truax: What was your initial reaction to Evelyne de la Cheneliere’s play?

Philippe Falardeau: As I was watching the play, I thought it would make a good movie; Because of the character. Because of the richness of the character; I fell in love with him. I thought it was a good way to tackle an immigrant character without making the film about immigration, therefore not making the film too didactic. Because it was a one-man play, you had to imagine all the other characters around him, which forced me to…write the first draft of the script in my head as I was watching the play… I was just touched by the character. I wanted the character in an eventual movie.

JT: How did you go about approaching Evelyne de la Cheneliere about turning the play into a film, and what was that process like?

PF: She was a friend of mine. When I went to see the play, I had no idea what I was going to see. So I called her and said, “I want to turn this into a movie.” She was a little skeptical, because of the fact that there’s only one man on-stage. But the thing that bothered her most, I think, was, “Now you’re going to have to use real children…” She didn’t want the film to be too cute… I was on the same page with her on that. So there was no problem… I wanted to tackle…the issues frontally, and not [make] a “family movie.”

JT: There have been a lot of films made in America about a teacher inspiring a group of students and vice versa. The concept generally feels very tired, but Monsieur Lazhar brings a lot of great energy to it and feels fresh and original. As you were writing and directing, how did you make sure the film felt unique?

PF: I’d done a lot of research and seen many films…Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, The Class by Laurent Cantet, Half Nelson… I think it had to with the fact that Monsieur Lazhar wouldn’t be this man coming in, trying to be accepted by the children, and having this long struggle, and eventually they like him. They pretty much like him from the start. It doesn’t take him long to straighten up the class. It takes him about a week… So it was about something else. I wanted the children to help him, and for him to help the children, but not through big speeches of encouragement… For me, Monsieur Lazhar is not necessarily a role model. I think a lot of the traps, pitfalls of that type of movie, [come from] the teacher [being] this inspirational role model. Monsieur Lazhar isn’t. I’m not saying he’s the kind of teacher I would want to have. I probably would prefer Claire [Brigitte Poupart], who’s [teaching] the other class with all kinds of color, teaching theater. I think that’s how I avoided the traps that this genre often offers.

JT: One of the major themes in the movie is a group of children learning to deal with loss and death. This easily could have veered into the realm of afterschool special, but Monsieur Lazhar always feels very insightful and dramatic. How did make sure it never became maudlin or schmaltzy?

PF: I would say that my perpetual fear of being melodramatic restrained me from going there… Also, I think if you rely on the audience’s intelligence, you avoid that. Instead of giving them everything, instead of writing a scene where you would have Monsieur Lazhar saying, “Okay kids, this is my last day. I have to leave. It’s not that I don’t want to stay.” And then the kids start saying, “No!” And then the kids start crying… Instead of going there, I invent something else. I invent a scene where he wants to correct the fable with the kids. And through an act of education, again, he will say goodbye.

JT: A lot of these kids walk a fine line. They sound like kids, but kids that have lived through some very adult things. Adult writers frequently write kids as sounding either too juvenile or like little adults. You avoided both and walked that fine line really well. How did you accomplish that and find the voices of these child characters?

PF: I think it’s a mixture of how you write it and how you cast it. [If I] look at the dialogue, and say, “Would a kid say that? Probably not,” but I want to have this dialogue in the movie…what I do is I try to find a kid that will be so good, [and] say the line like he owns it… When I’m casting, often what I do is just close my eyes… You close your eyes and you listen, and you ask yourself, “If you hear a kid say that in the backstreet, do you believe it or not?” If I don’t believe it, then the person is probably not right for the role. It’s especially true for Alice. She’s mature. So Sophie Nelisse who plays Alice has that maturity in her… So I knew she would be able to play this precocious character.

JT: Monsieur Lazhar deals with the topical issue of immigration, as well as having a multi-national identity. Is Monsieur Lazhar a political film? Is there a political message to it?

PF: It’s definitely a socially-engaged film. It had a social canvas to it. I would say that some things in the film are political. But it works emotionally. That’s why it succeeded, regardless of the fact that it has some political canvas. I think when…Alice is coming back in the room at the end asking for a hug…she’s doing an act of resistance there that’s almost political.

JT: Congorama and Monsieur Lazhar both deal with men of a certain age dealing with their past and going through a lot of self-discovery at this point in their lives. What attracts you to these men and these struggles?

PF: Identity. I think it’s the only subject in the world. Where we come from. Who we are. How can we fit in? That’s true in all of my films… An historian, his work deals with identity. [Same with] an archeologist. I deal with identity in my films.

JT: As you’re been traveling all over the world with Monsieur Lazhar, and screening it at festivals and for various audiences, what feedback have you been most proud of?

PF: That the film, although it deals with ethnicity and takes place in Montreal and it’s in French, it seems that all that doesn’t matter. No matter where the film plays, people say it’s their film, it could happen in the school just right there in the neighborhood… One of the most mind-boggling things is that the movie will open in two weeks in Japan. This, for me, is incredible. It means that the people in Japan think that this story can happen in their own backyard.

3 Responses to “Director Philippe Falardeau on his Oscar-nominated “Monsieur Lazhar””

  1. Great interview! Loved the question about making sure it never became “maudlin or schmaltzy”.

  2. Thanks to Music Box Films for continuing to bring terrific foreign films to US cinemas!

  3. I absolutely loved the film! It reflects the new world order of transient ethnicity, and as far as inspirational school teacher movies go it shows some admirable restraint. Dealing with loss and death is a school system is no easy order to convey without sloppy emotions, but director Falardeau has worked wonders, fully earning the last moving frame.

    Excellent interview. Glad you broached the political questions as well.

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