Lessons in Loss: Gender and Grief in Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar
Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar (2011) opens with a quintessentially Québécois scene: children, bundled against the cold morning, loitering and teasing each other in a snowy Montreal schoolyard. Fifth-grader Simon (Émilien Néron) rushes from the bustling winter scene into the empty school to collect milk for his class. As he arrives at the doorway of the classroom, he freezes and backs away, revealing the figure of his beloved teacher, Martine (Héléna Laliberté), who has hanged herself. As the narrative progresses, Martine’s body continues to haunt the space of the classroom. Her image appears again in the film, in a photograph taken by Simon, but she is never seen (a)live. Yet the inanimate presence of this archetypal schoolteacher ultimately animates the central conflict of the film—the fraught relationship between affect and knowledge.
As the school principal, Madame Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), scrambles to fill Martine’s position, Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) arrives on the scene, claiming many years’ teaching experience. Desperate to find a replacement, Vaillancourt hires him, though we soon discover his fortuitous arrival is too good to be true—it was not him, but his deceased wife who was the schoolteacher. After she was killed by terrorists in retaliation for her scathing critique of Algerian politics, Bachir sought asylum in Quebec. Following his first day with Martine’s class, Bachir collects a package from the post office: a box of his wife’s belongings, sent from Algiers. Like Martine, this woman—another doomed schoolteacher—hangs phantom-like between Bachir and his new charges.
Bachir’s first days at the school are a meticulous study in difference. While Martine had arranged the desks in a semicircle to promote a sense of community, Bachir immediately has the students move them back into rows. Whereas Martine had the students work together in groups, Bachir stands before them and dictates from Balzac. The students attribute his rigidity to his cultural background, while the other teachers consider it a mark of an outdated pedagogical style—the old school, as it were. However, Bachir proves himself to be more at home with his students’ complex emotional lives than the other adults. The school psychologist enforces a strict boundary between her work and Bachir’s educational role, asking Bachir to exit the classroom during her sessions with the students. As he lingers in the hallway, he wanders over to the next classroom and watches another teacher, Claire (Brigitte Poupart), at work, charismatically teaching her class about aboriginal spirituality. It seems that Claire’s rapport with her students is inseparable from her national belonging, her intimate and affectionate familiarity with Canadian and First Nations histories. Claire is rooted while Bachir wanders the halls, the transient space of the school.
Yet the narrative ultimately addresses this alienation. Bachir finds himself having dinner at Claire’s house, surrounded by photographs of her travels. Reductively understanding Bachir’s exile as a kind of journey, Claire asks why he does not talk about his background. Her question reveals the racial dynamics in cultural identity: for Claire, trauma is not part of “travel.” As Dina Georgis argues in The Better Story, cultural mythologies can be understood as a response to trauma, an attempt to work through the difficulties of belonging on a level that is not necessarily conscious. These “better stories” help process, manage, and circulate knowledge that is affectively loaded. However, Georgis contends that we can hear better stories than the better story, and that we should listen for them, since the tales we inherit sometimes naturalize difference and often normalize violence. Claire prying into Bachir’s past, as well intentioned as it may be, reveals how she is locked into the better story of white settler colonialism. She may be celebrating a reified spectrum of difference, but does not understand that it is her very whiteness that allows her to travel across that spectrum with such ease.
Conversely, Bachir’s mobility is bureaucratically circumscribed at every turn. He is constantly seen documenting himself: showing his foreign passport at the post office, recounting the details of his family tragedy before lawyers and judges who will determine whether he can stay in Canada. When Simon takes Bachir’s photograph without warning, Bachir’s surprise underlines his doubly ambiguous status as a refugee in Canada and an illegitimate teacher in the school. Even his affinity for Balzac can be understood as an attempt to relate to his Québécois students through their common history of French colonialism, an attempt that ultimately fails because of the drastic difference between North American and African legacies of empire. While Claire’s mobility across borders is a mark of privilege, Bachir’s border-crossings make him increasingly vulnerable.
It is not the freedom of global citizenship, but the ambivalence of profound loss that Bachir brings into the classroom. He dwells with his students in their common and disparate grief, demonstrating an attunement to how their loss manifests in their learning. When the students complete an assignment on violence, Alice (Sophie Nélisse), the only other student who witnessed Martine’s hanging body, delivers a moving remonstration against the teacher for bringing violence into the school, which should be a place of refuge. Bachir resists rushing toward closure on the issue. He does not entirely validate Alice’s point of view, nor does he discount her feelings. He goes so far as to suggest circulating Alice’s essay, to open a school-wide conversation, but Madame Vaillancourt considers the piece too violent.
This ambivalence becomes central to the classroom dynamics, undermining the traditional gendered and racialized organization of space within the school. Originally cast as the austere, hyper-masculine outsider, Bachir finds himself thrust into the messy heart of things. As schoolteachers, his wife and Martine were the guardians of innocence, and erected a firm boundary between the public space of adulthood and the intimate space of childhood. But these women transgressed the boundaries they were supposed to defend, and paid with their lives. Bachir’s wife stepped into a realm typically inhabited by men, loudly condemning a political regime that is hostile to women. She died in her home with her children, literally put back in her place.
As the film builds to its climax, Martine’s own transgression emerges. It turns out that she was tutoring Simon. In an attempt to comfort him during a moment of particular frustration, Martine gave him a hug. He pushed her away and reported the incident as a romantic embrace. While the faculty agrees that Martine’s actions were misinterpreted, one of the teachers speculates that Martine’s suicide was a response to the fallout from this incident. Simon, however, who has become increasingly violent since Martine’s death, expresses the full significance of this transgression in an emotional outburst. He is at once embarrassed to have cried in front of his teacher, resentful that she tried to act like his mother, and remorseful, believing himself responsible for her death. In this moment, it becomes clear that Martine’s violence does not reside only in her final act, but in her precarious balancing act as a female teacher—who must be professional, maternal, and desirable in equal measures. Like Bachir’s wife, she is doomed from the start. In death, these women are allowed to manifest the contradictions they were denied in life. Ghosts can pass through walls, so ghosts might constitute the singular instance in which the artificial laws of gender and race can be suspended. These women’s spectral presences pronounce the impossibility of femininity. Simon’s treasured photograph of Martine later reappears. This time, he has drawn wings around her body and a noose around her neck. He stokes a curiously paradoxical fantasy of desire, both doomed and redeemed.
As Simon cries openly, Bachir breaks the rule against touching students, kneeling and putting his arm around the child, reassuring him that Martine’s death is not his fault. This is a rare moment of tenderness. During a staff meeting, the gym teacher laments that it is impossible to teach physical education without physical contact. Indeed, it is impossible to teach without contact of any kind. In order to achieve this contact, Bachir has crossed the prohibited space that is usually the domain of women, to arrive finally in the inner sanctum of the primary school classroom, kneeling next to a weeping child and patting his head.
This transgression comes at a great cost. Vaillancourt admits that she has known about Bachir’s lack of qualifications from the start. When Simon’s photo finds its way into the principal’s office, igniting controversy among parents and teachers, she can no longer look the other way. Bachir pleads for one more day so that he, unlike Martine, can say goodbye to the children, saying he would not want to abandon them. This comment recalls his earlier defense of his departure from Algiers, when an immigration lawyer accused him of abandoning his family when they were in danger. His parting is as ambivalent as his tenure. He tells the students a fable, a “better story,” to manage their grief and his. In his story, a tree stands guard over a fragile chrysalis, but a forest fire kills the embryonic creature before it can metamorphose. The tree cannot forget his chrysalis, but settles for telling the story to each bird that alights upon its branches. This story resists the facile conclusion that the voids left by trauma can be refilled. Instead, it opens new epistemological and political possibilities in the face of trauma, where pain is neither denied outright nor over-determined. The double act of storytelling—of Bachir telling this fable to his class as he leaves them, and the tree telling its story to the birds—keeps the audience attuned to better stories than our better story. Although Martine and Bachir’s wife pay dearly for crossing powerful social parameters, their doom haunts those they leave behind with the possibility of stories yet untold—stories in which they could pass through walls without first becoming ghosts.