“I have this thing with people hanging themselves,” Phillippe Falardeau says with a literal case of gallows humor, upon realizing that both his latest film “Monsieur Lazhar” and his last “It’s Not Me, I Swear” involved a noose. Yet while the latter was a coming-of-age comedy, his latest is a drama that’s perhaps so touching because of the honesty Falardeau brings to it, something that’s evident when you meet the writer/director from Quebec in person. Freely discussing his film without regard to concealing plot points or placing it in an overly serious context befitting of its recent nomination for a best foreign-language film Oscar, Falardeau radiates a natural warmth which seems to have been crucial in disarming audiences for what’s a rather somber year-in-the-life of an Algerian immigrant who takes over an elementary school class after the tragic suicide of their teacher.
An outsider in a number of ways, the titular Monsieur Lazhar, who insists on being called by his first name Bashir, enters into the school unburdened by the grief that’s gripped both the students and other faculty members and stands out as an Algerian in the small, surrounding French-Canadian community, but turns out to be unusually suited to the position due to reasons Falardeau teases out over the course of the film. However, Falardeau had to tease out many things for there to be a film at all, fleshing out Évelyne de la Chenelière’s play which was performed as a one-man show into a feature where every one of Bashir’s colleagues and pupils are brought to life and drawing strong performances from actors of all ages, specifically the Parisian-based Algerian comedian Fellag as Bashir and Sophie Neliesse as Alice, a student wise beyond her years whose grieving process gives the drama its most resonant emotional arc.
While in Los Angeles recently, Falardeau talked about how he found his way into both film in general and his newest one, as well as why he keeps returning to the theme of identity and why it was important to shoot the film in chronological order.
Before we get to the film, it was interesting to learn that you were an international studies major in college. How did film become a place to channel that interest?
By accident. [laughs] I participated in a contest back in 1992. They had this show going on French television called “The Race Around the World” [where] eight young contestants would travel around the world alone with a S-VHS camera and they would have to do 20 short films in 26 weeks. So I was watching that every week, saw the people — oh, they were in Thailand or South Africa — and I wanted to do that, so to my surprise, they chose me.
Then I went on this trip, I went to a country, found a subject, shot, locked myself into an hotel room for two days, did the editing plan on paper because at that time we didn’t have computers with an editing system – we’d have cameras without a screen, without time code— and I was off to another country. They were showing the films as we progressed on television before a panel of judges and we’d get marks. At the end of the year, the one who got the most points won the race, so that’s how I got into filmmaking. When I came back from this trip, I knew my life had changed and that I wanted to do this. But I embarked on documentary filmmaking and then documentary filmmaking led me to fiction film.
Identity is a recurring theme in your work, including this film as Monsieur Lazhar’s Algerian background makes him an outsider in Quebec. What keeps you coming back?
I think it’s the only question. Identity can have to do our relationship with our parents or our family or where we come from or who we are as an individual or as a group. Historically, archeologically, trying to integrate or trying to fit, trying to know who we are… for me, it’s the only valid theme I can think of that can be in every film. I’m not sitting down trying to say okay, what’s my next identity subject. It doesn’t work that way. But as soon as I start working on something, I figure out that it’s about identity. Now why is it important for me? [pause] It’s difficult to tackle that without being too esoteric, but I was always interested in history and traveling and I just want to understand what makes us who we are.
You’ve said if you weren’t a filmmaker, you’d want to be an archeologist, which is curious to me since your films seem to take place very much in the present.
Yeah, but archeology is a science of the present. We dig in the present, we’re stuck with only small pieces of things. We use science to understand how the people of 3000 years ago lived and try to extrapolate where we’re from. So it’s very much a science of the present and I think I’m doing some kind of archeology when I’m researching a film, trying to dig up some stuff and put the pieces of the puzzle back together to create something.
You could argue this film is structured similar to a dig as Bachir’s past comes to light in bits and pieces after he’s been hired by the school as a substitute teacher. Do you think that’s a fair analogy?
I tried to do a film that I would like to see myself and since I hate to be fed all the information from the start and all the keys and answers, I like to think the audience is intelligent and they can go halfway. The other thing is that if you want to successfully build to have an emotional buildup, you can’t just throw everything [up immediately]. Often people send me ideas for scripts and they say, “It starts with a young girl, she loses her mother and she’s at the funeral and she cries.” And I told them, “Why should we care about that?” “Well, she’s a little girl, she lost her mother.” “Yeah, but why should the audience care? We don’t know her, so you have to start from the start. We have to know her before.”
That helped me when I drafted the script because at the beginning, I didn’t want to show the hanging. And at some point, I realized if I don’t show the hanging, especially through the point of view of the kid, how are we supposed to care at the end when he has a cathartic moment? When he brings the milk to the class and he drops the milk and sees that – if we don’t see that, you’re not going to care that much, so it’s about gradually building the stuff that will make the film emotionally potent.
I understand you decided to shoot the film in as close to chronological order as possible, which is rare. Was that to set the tone for the rest of the production?
For instance, with the kids, Émilien [Néron, who plays Simon, the boy who discovers his deceased teacher] who had lost his uncle [in real life], I think it was important for him to go through the film pretty much in order. When we got to the big day, he had some mileage behind him and he was comfortable enough to dig inside of him to get that scene. When I went to see him the same morning, he was not feeling well and I said, “You’re thinking about your uncle” and he says, “Yes,” and I asked him, “You think you’re going to cry during the scene because of that?” And he says, “Probably.” And I asked him, “Do you want me to stop?” And he said, “No, don’t stop, I want to go through this.” That’s what I wanted to hear, but I wanted him to decide. I wanted him to know it was his decision to go there.
Visually, since the school is a rather limited setting, how did you go about filming it in an interesting way?
When you’re filming people who are talking, you have to know what you’re filming, where you’re going to put the camera, what lenses you’re going to use, where you’re going to pull the focus. It’s tough to film people talking actually. It’s probably tougher than to have all kinds of funky camera movement. So I knew I had to have sober camerawork on this one and I wanted to be close to the children. We used the Cinemascope format because I knew we were going to be shooting at the level of their desk and it gives the impression that I have more children in one frame. You don’t, but by taking away the top and the bottom, you concentrate on more faces, so I chose all the elements of form in the film to try to help this particular story.
You also do a lot of framing with doorways in the film, which is particularly effective in portraying Bachir as an outsider for much of the film – was that by necessity or intention? [SPOILERS AHEAD]
Let’s take for instance when [Alice, one of the students] goes back into the classroom to hug her teacher, I had scripted it exactly that way. The camera is outside, you can see the door because at this point for me, the door symbolizes a lot of things. The hallway is the intestine of a school and the school is sick. It’s sick in its stomach and it happens in the intestine in the beginning when [Simon] finds the body. Then she’s at the end, she wants to cure that, so we’re in that body. We’re in that intestine of the school and I want to feel the school, still feel the environment, not just see two people hugging close. I want to still feel this organic environment, so that’s why I need this long shot. And it’s probably the same reason for other shots in the school. I want to feel the school.
Since this was once a one-man show, what was playwright Évelyne de la Chenelière’s reaction to seeing the finished film? You’ve credited her with helping find Fellag, the actor who plays Bachir, but I’ve heard she wasn’t too involved otherwise.
I asked her to read my different drafts and she was involved in that way and she gave me a few ideas. She didn’t co-write the script with me, she didn’t want to and I didn’t want to either, but she just asked me to make a film that wouldn’t be too cute. She was afraid the presence of the children would render the whole project just a little too cute and I was on the same page. Apart from that, she really liked what I did with the film and I can foresee a collaboration with her in the future. You saw her. She plays the mother of Alice at the end of the film. She’s the one thanking Bachir – she’s actually thanking her own creation. [laughs]
“Monsieur Lazhar” opens in limited release on April 13th. A full list of theaters in California, Connecticut, Florida, New Mexico and New York can be found here. It expands on April 20th.