“No one wants to work here now,” exclaims the harried school director (Danielle Proulx) after one of her teachers hangs herself in a classroom. Few filmmakers want to dwell on the overly practical aspects of the fall-out from a tragedy, and French-Canadian director Philippe Falardeau has the deadpan chops to make that film. It’s Not Me, I Swear, Falardeau’s previous effort, possessed the requisite eccentricity to tell of the most destructive precocious 10 year old since Neil Jordan’s film of The Butcher Boy. But despite an opening stretch that suggests a darkly comic treatment of material usually handled soporifically, Monsieur Lazhar is not that movie. It’s something both more familiar and more unusual, in some ways a more odd combination than the much-hoped-for darkly comic movie about suicide.
He arrives with pure pep: Monsieur Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) shows up in the school director’s office looking to replace the deceased teach, even though an ad has yet to be placed. His pluck, combined with the Oscar nomination this Quebecian drama netted, would suggest Lazhar will become our latest inspirational movie teacher, ready to raise the dead woman’s class of fourth graders out of the mire to standing atop desks when he’s inevitably sacked by the school’s cowardly overlords. But Lazhar’s entrance is a red herring: he’s a meek sadsack, with his own past tragedy to contend with. Reserved and bottled up—and only twice busting out the Irritating Robin Williams Sad Smile—he’s not even revealed to his young charges that he’s an Algerian refugee, purely because “it’s not in the curriculum.”
Its rare spouts of emotion muted and earned, Monsieur Lazhar is best defined by what it isn’t than what is, and what it isn’t is boilerplate genre fodder. That doesn’t mean it’s not thin, and in fact it is. Where It’s Not Me, I Swear was packed with idiosyncratic detail, Monsieur Lazhar finds Falardeau paring his schtick down. He goes too far: A little of Lazhar and his students struggling to keep their shit goes a long way. And while the film is allergic to cliches, it runs out of things to do before its meager length has elapsed.