How do you hang yourself off the fluorescent light fixture in an elementary-school classroom? Surely the fixture would break .
That was one nasty question Quebec director Philippe Falardeau had to consider as he adapted a theatrical monologue about a mysterious Montreal school teacher into his new film, Monsieur Lazhar. The film is Canada 's official entry in the Oscars ' foreign-language category and Wednesday moved forward to the short list that will be considered for the nominations. (The list will be reduced to five nominees next Tuesday.)
He and producer Luc Déry had both seen Évelyne de la Chenelière's 2007 playabout an Algerian political refugee who takes a job teaching in the Grade 6 classroom where the last teacher hanged herself, but Déry couldn't see how it would be a film.
"He said, 'There is one character on stage, how are you going to do that?' but it made sense to me. You are watching one man, but theoretically it takes place in a school, so as an audience you have to imagine the environment, pretty much the way you do in any play. I began to see a movie," Falardeau said in a recent interview, adding it was just a question of creating the other characters, especially the children traumatized by their teachers' death, and working up a drama that would last the length of a feature film.
Falardeau, who studied political science at the University of Ottawa and always aims for some social commentary in his films, is known for critically acclaimed art-house offerings such as The Left-hand Side of the Fridge and Congorama. He is down-to-earth, cheerful and remarkably humble for one whose career is now taking off meteorically, as Monsieur Lazhar moves that much closer to an Oscar nomination. His task in this film was to bring a certain naturalism to de la Chenelière's highly poetic monologue.
"I thought about not showing the person hanging herself but in cinema you deal with real objects, real persons and I had to show it, through the point of view of the children, for the cathartic moment at the end to work," he said. "In the play, we learn that the teacher committed suicide when Monsieur Lazhar reads the composition of the young girl, and we learn she hung herself from a light fixture. Nobody can hang themselves from that; it's going to break. So I thought about a pipe: I visited so many schools; there are no pipes in schools. We had to build pipes, phony pipes."
Still, the character of Bashir Lazhar, a suffering émigré who delicately empathizes with the children's grief, helped Falardeau maintain a certain poetic quality in the film. "There were situations where I could explore poetry because the character is unique and singular; he's from another culture; he's very interested in books, he's a fish out of the bowl."
To play Lazhar, Falardeau auditioned actors in Paris's large North-African community and was struck by one man, the Algerian stand-up comic known simply by his last name, Fellag. Lionized by North Africans in France and in Quebec for his tough political act, Fellag is little know outside those communities. Despite his humour, Falardeau was struck mainly by Fellag's dignity and his fragility. Coincidentally, the comic also had to flee Algeria in the 1990s when artists were being persecuted by the regime there.
"When he saw the film he was very moved – I think he underestimated his work – but still he doesn't like to go public with that. When people address the question of his own life, of when he had to leave Algeria, he doesn't want to talk about it. Just like the character in the film.
"He is really – there's a word in French, désinvolte [casual.]He is not interested in all the glamour. I bet if we do go to the Oscars, he's not even going to come, and good for him. He's doing his own show right now; he's touring in Switzerland, France and Belgium."
Ah, the Oscars. Falardeau is in the paradoxical position of knowing that turning an "official entry" into an actual nomination is a long shot, yet feeling increasingly nerve-racked as nominations approach.
"I can't wait for it to be over, good or bad. I want to move on to other things," he said. "Everyone is asking how it is going to change my life. It certainly is not going to write my next script; nobody is going to write my next script but me." (In a statement released Wednesday after Falardeau had learned the film had cleared another hurdle toward a nomination, he reiterated that a good night's sleep was going to be hard to come by this week, but would say nothing further until he had an actual nomination in hand.)
At the same time, Falardeau, whose film was also named the best Canadian feature at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, is impressed with being placed on Variety's list of 10 directors to watch in 2012: "That list has some leverage in California. If I wanted to send a script to, I don't now, Ryan Gosling, all of a sudden it becomes more possible."
And he is writing his next script, attempting his first pure comedy, a political one about a rural Quebec MP with a riding the size of Belgium who suddenly finds himself holding the balance of power on an important vote in the House of Commons.
Perhaps Gosling can star.
Monsieur Lazhar opens Jan. 27 in Toronto and Vancouver.