Monsieur Lazhar and Café de Flore

In a most unexpected way the last two films I have seen have been from Québec.  I am only aware of having seen three French Canadian films.  One was last year and now I have seen two in a row.  Is there something special going on in Québecois film circles?   Anyway both were very entertaining and thought provoking films and completely different.

The first was Monsieur Lazhar a film written and directed by Philippe Falardeau.  The Monsieur Lazhar of the title is an Algerian asylum seeker living in Montreal.  When he reads about the suicide of a primary school teacher he presents himself at the school and offers his services as a replacement for the dead teacher.  Not sure how likely something like this could happen in any part of Canada, but this is a film, not a documentary.   Not only has the teacher committed suicide, but she did so in her classroom and was found hanging from the ceiling by one of her pupils.  The main theme of the film is about how the pupils react to this tragedy and how the school and parents go about helping them to overcome their feelings of guilt and remorse.  Added to this it emerges that Lazhar himself is in the process of recovering from the tragic loss of his wife.  This is potentially very dangerous territory for a film maker, but Falardeau has made a very sensitive movie, with elements of comedy and romance to lighten the ambience.  Mohamed Fellag, an Algerian himself, is wonderful as Monsieur Lazhar.  He is at first baffled by the approaches to teaching in the school as it is at opposite poles from his own traditional experiences in Algeria.  However with is gentleness and humanity he wins over the children and the other staff members.  The school pupils are also impressively good, especially the two main characters, Alice and Simon.  This is a very moving and understated film about dealing with loss.

Café de Flore was written and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.  The title confusingly does not refer to a café but to a rock song.  This is essentially two films which have little in common and which the director is only partly successful in bringing together at the end.  The film starts with the complicated life of international DJ Antoine who lives in present day Montreal with his new lover Rose.  She has replaced his former wife Carole, much to the disgust of Carole, his two daughters and his parents.  Antoine still cares for his ex who hopes to win him back and tries to keep everyone happy.  Being very wealthy no doubt helps.  The other storyline develops in the late 1960s in Paris.  There Jacqueline is trying on her own to bring up her Down Syndrome son, Laurent, in relative poverty.  She has to struggle against prejudice to keep her son in his school and passionately wants to bring her son up as normal as possible.  The two stories have nothing in common really.  What does link them as the film develops is the passionate intensity of Carole and Jacqueline and their unwillingness to give up on their loved ones – Antoine and Laurent.  This is ultimately about the dangers of obsessive/possessive love.  To bring the two tales together the film resorts to some kind of mystical link which binds the lives of the two women together.  On the whole I was not fully convinced by the ending, but this is nevertheless a very powerful and extremely well acted film with great performances by the whole cast.  Vanessa Paradis as Jacqueline, Hélène Florent as Carole and Kevin Parent as Antoine particularly stand out.  And of course a special mention must go to the children who play the Down Syndrome characters.  Despite some reservations, this is still a film that is well worth seeing.

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