This is not what the trailer promises, with its piano music softly trumpeting the titular substitute teacher Monsieur Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) – hired by headmistress Mme. Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx) – who shows and paves for his impressionable students (including Sophie Nelisse and Émilien Néron) the magical road towards higher learning.
Surely his presence in the school would mean some healing for these kids, especially the two who have seen their previous teacher’s body. Right?
Monsieur Lazhar can also be known as Bad Teacher, his minor flaws putting into question our traditions and cultural understanding on who and how to raise our kids.
Many of his colleagues and some of the parents relish to remind him how terrible he is at his job. Good God there’s a lot of passive aggressive workplace verbal exchanges in this movie.
And these body check-size words hint towards the cultural barriers that separate Bachir from everyone else, tiptoeing on saying that he doesn’t belong in the classroom.
The first comes from the child psychiatrist, telling him that his classroom needs colour. Every other classroom in the school looks like a Treehouse TV set.
He tries his best to emulate the other teachers, hoping to get inspiration by entering one of those classrooms as if incubated in a cutesy alien civilization. He buys a plant that dies because he doesn’t water it.
But as a child from across the seas, I actually prefer his very Spartan arrangements – desks straightly aligned, little to no decorations. He believes in learning above playing, and a good smack upside the head to a child who deserves it. The later is problematic, I know.
Another teacher tells him that it’s sad that he doesn’t think that his students have an interest in his life. This coming from somone who incorporates her travels in her lesson plan, assuming that he must have a lot to say about a faraway land.
I see in Bachir, an unlikely advocate for French-ness, a bit of an Uncle Tom. He teaches Balzac and Moliere instead of elementary school level readings. He educating the kids in proper grammar and teaching them big words. He tells his one Mediterranean student to stop speaking in Arabic and to speak in French instead.
All of this is ironic because assimilation is a philosophy drained into immigrants, welcoming their new home while their hosts find traits within immigrants to other them.
But most people just want to a taste of the exotic. They want to hear, as he concedes, an image of Algiers as a city of blue and white.
But what about the scars produced by a dangerous land, as he has experienced? He thinks Algiers is an inappropriate subject, a topic he has to deal with in court appointments, associating his home town with a family separated from him because of the Algerian Civil war.
Seeing his difficult life outside the classroom, his assimilation complex, although a character flaw, becomes understandable.
He also wants to treat these children like adults. As much as he doesn’t like discussing his wounds, he lets his students have an open space where they can talk about theirs.
In a way, the children mature and are able to deal with trauma, a state of being that scares some of the children and most of the adults.
And the most emotionally wrenching and devastating thing about this movie is not the loss of innocence produced by horrific incidents. Falardeau effectively shows us in this Oscar nominated movie how barriers, cultural, personally built, or otherwise, stops the characters from the healing that they need.
- Monsieur Lazhar: An unforgettable tale, artfully told (theglobeandmail.com)
In this contemporary yet arguably obtuse adaptation of Plato’s “The Myth of the Cave,” an allegory of the stubborn insularity of totalitarian regimes or a depiction of terrible parenting, Dogtooth is set on a large house on an exurb in Greece where a family man wants his wife and children, the latter in their twenties, never to leave the house and to know anything about the outside world. Why do I never get interested or hooked in the first part of the films I’ve been watching recently? Sometimes the camera doesn’t show the characters’ heads, frustratingly obscuring them in long takes. I wasn’t even fully interested when the father brings Christina, a security guard, to his house to have sex with her son without intimacy, their bodies connected but separate. Maybe I answered my question there.
The parents misinform their children of the definitions and functions of objects associated with the outside world. For example ‘sea‘ is an armchair, ‘excursion’ is a floor material and that airplanes fall out of the sky into their garden.
For some reason, model airplanes mark the relatively exciting parts of the film, as the older sister Bruce – she names herself – steals an airplane from her brother and throws it out towards the gate. The first airplane incident creates a chain of accusations and violence. She accuses him of stealing the plane. In the next scene, she slices her brother’s arm. Next scene, Father slaps her. Bruce becomes the least favourite, having the least stickers, being hit in the head again by the VHS tapes she has watched. He inflicts lesser forms of abuse to the other members of the family, telling them to walk and bark like dogs in case a dangerous cat intrudes their home.
The father also hits Christina, who smuggles the tapes to Bruce, with a VCR player even if she’s an outsider. Violence in this film isn’t set up with intensity nor is spoonfed, happens surprisingly after calm dialogue, an animalistic release from the children who are raised by it. Other critics have assumed that the parents have secluded the children for protective purposes, but ironically, the most violent and sexually perverse encounters to ever occur to a child happens in their own home. That’s true in this film, and it would be less groundbreaking without showing this damaging effect of seclusion to both the children and parents.
In order to get the plane back, the son has to ask his father to drive the car outside the gate so that the latter can pick it off the ground. Here we have two different versions of maleness, the father obviously victorious over the son he has emasculated. The son’s practically a grown man but going outside is naturally verboten to him. He has the most stickers but he’s starting to lose contests. His arranged sexual encounters with Christina and Bruce – because eventually they can’t trust outsiders anymore – doesn’t have any intensity. He even has reservations on his second time having sex with Christina. It’s also arguable that the father is emasculated, carefully peeling off the labels of the water bottles he brings home, bloodying himself up when he discovers that a cat has intruded his home or mouthing words to his wife when they’re arguing. He’s so committed into his lies that he doesn’t break character both with or without his family’s presence.
Speaking of the differences between family members, the film includes a contest between the children on who gets a plane that falls out of the sky. The son almost gets it until Bruce trips him, grabs the toy and makes it to the finish line and doesn’t get punished for cheating. Bruce is the oddest out of these oddballs, and possibly the one who’s most experienced with the outside world. After having sex with her brother, she threatens him of killing his clan, as if quoting from a movie. The parents have also raised these children with competition, inevitably raising a child who years for freedom even if she’s never experienced it.
This film has been nominated for the Best Foreign Picture by the Academy in 2010. We’re going to win.
- Dogtooth: Disturbing dark comedy with a bite (theglobeandmail.com)