Monsieur Lazhar

By Christopher Redmond

Mailed on March 05, 2012

Stamp image Air
StarStarStarStarEmpty Star

Dear Laurent Boye
International Publicist

Dear Laurent,

Somebody's been busy the past few months! Let me start by congratulating you on the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination for Monsieur Lazar. Getting the Academy to sit through another Canadian film about isolation and depression could not have been easy. Sure, there's no weird sex or snowshoes, but opening with a teacher hanging herself in a classroom? You were probably tempted to lock the exits. Lucky for you, the story subverts expectations and turns into a genuine crowd pleaser within about five minutes. At that point, the film does a pretty good job of selling itself.

But let's go back to when you first heard writer and director Philippe Falardeau was turning a one-man play into a feature film. I imagine everyone at Telefilm was reaching for red markers. Theatre icon Daniel McIvor adapted his own solo stage effort but didn't exactly bring down the House. International sensation Robert Lepage tried, but is now in self-imposed cinematic exile from The Far Side of the Moon. Even by Canadian standards, the initial odds of success were stacked pretty heavy against Falardeau.

His last feature, It's Not Me I Swear!, certainly proved how emotionally effective he could make an eccentric visual pallet and melancholy characters. But although you can now promote him as one of Canada's most dependable directors, no one gets a financing carte blanche in our subsidized industry (contrary to what your detractors on Sun TV have said). So at what point did you know you might have a critical and commercial hit on your hands?

Casting Fellag as the titular star was probably a good start. The Algerian actor is apparently famous in his homeland as a comedian, but I would have never guessed. His dramatic performance is subtle, layered and enchanting in a way our native gag specialists (Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Patrick Huard, etc.) always fall short when crossing genres. I know playing against type makes your job a nightmare, but in this case, the North American public's unfamiliarity only helped the character's authenticity. But please tell him that around here, only rock stars and wrestlers get to go by one name.

I am confused, however, why you abandoned the Canadian poster, featuring the teacher walking alone down a hallway with a "papier poisson" taped to his back. It was such a simple and poetic moment from the film that captured the essence of his struggle to fit into his foreign home. Americans love fish-out-of-water stories too, yet the smiling family portrait with his students, when taken out of context, has far less dramatic and thematic relevance. I also struggle to understand how it helps the film commercially. But at least you stuck with a French title. Calling the film Mr. Lazhar would have robbed the story of some French post-colonial undertones, and just plain sounded banal. Kind of like why perfume companies don't translate "eau de toilette."

The young actors, however, did deserve more prominence in the publicity I suppose. Émilien Neron, as the troubled Simon, absolutely nails his climactic scene that is a lynch pin for the whole story. Each of the other student performances also feel refreshingly age appropriate and honest. So while I'm able to appreciate their importance after the fact, I think the film's success in Canada proves the right poster can help the film appeal to a wider demographic than Half Nelson, or even Dead Poets Society.

I've now seen the film twice with vastly different audiences. First with critics at a steely press and industry screening during the Toronto International Film Festival, and again months later with patriotic cheerleaders at one of Heritage Minister James Moore's swanky Parliament Hill movie nights. In both cases, my own sample exit polls found people agreed the film was more moving because of the director's resistance to sentimentality. The American poster does just the opposite, but I suppose getting the Yanks to swallow a French Canadian pill requires a lot of sugar. So here's hoping you find continued success south of the border.

With glowing hearts,


P.S. Smart move taking your name off Burlesque.

comments powered by Disqus
(% endraw %}