Friday, July 13, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom & Monsieur Lazhar

While visiting my father in Las Vegas last week, we saw Moonrise Kingdom and Monsieur Lazhar.

Moonrise Kingdom starring Jared Gilman & Kara Hayward; with Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman & Harvey Keitel; directed by Wes Anderson; (2012) - Official Website
Monsieur Lazhar starring Mohamed Saïd Fellag, Sophie Nélisse & Émilien Néron; directed by Philippe Falardeau; Frech with subtitles; (2011) - Official Website


Prior to Moonrise Kingdom, I had only seen one Wes Anderson film - The Royal Tenenbaums.  All the other films are missing from my viewing experience - Rushmore, Bottle Rocket, The Darjeeling Limited & The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

Having seen Tenenbaums and read about his other works, I knew what to expect - large ensemble cast, detailed characterization, quirkiness, etc.  That describes Moonrise Kingdom.  I wasn't quite ready for the deadpan delivery which each character employs.  That wasn't the case in Tenenbaums

Whereas Tenenbaums gently showed adults and their many flaws, Moonrise Kingdom is about first love...between two strange kids...on an isolated New England island in 1965...with a hurricane bearing down on them.  The flawed adults are there - detached parents (Murray & McDormand), martinet Scout leader (Norton), coldly efficient Social Services (Swinton), etc. but the focus is on the young couple (Jared Gilman & Kara Hayward). 

Gilman is Sam, an orphan & rogue Khaki Scout who goes AWOL from his summer camp to runaway with his love.  Suzy is the eldest daughter of a passionless couple of lawyers who live in a lighthouse on the other end of New Penzance Island.  Prone to listening to Benjamin Britten records and stealing library books, Suzy has kept her epistolary relationship with Sam a secret.

Using Sam's wilderness survival skills, the couple elude the Scout troop and island police chief (Bruce Willis) who are tracking them as if they were fugitives.  Along the way, the adults learn more about themselves than the kids do.

Quirky in spades, Moonrise Kingdom has a gentleness about it.  It's also a bit surreal with its hyperidealized version of mid-1960s New England.  The entire cast is effective although one must look for subtle nuances over their affectations.  Kara Hayward, in particular, looks as though she could do well in adolescent roles.  She remind me a little of Amy Landecker although Hayward's eyes are not as piercing.

Hank Williams songs are frequently playing on the radio in the background throughout the film.  "Kaw-Liga", song instantly recognizable for its tom-tom beat and Williams' warbling, is repeatedly played.


Monsieur Lazhar also deals with children except they are coping with a beloved teacher's suicide.  Monsieur Lazhar is also an indictment of the Canadian public educational system although the Montreal school in the film would be the envy of most US public elementary schools.

The film opens with 5th or 6th grader Simon finding the body of his teacher, Martine Lachance, hanging in the classroom before school.  She has committed suicide.  Her entire class is traumatized by the event and the school reacts per policy - psychologists brought in, counseling available to the students, etc.. 

Unable to find a replacement teacher, the principal is approached by Bashir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant who was a teacher in his homeland, to take over Lachance's class for the rest of the school year. 

Lazhar encounters cultural and emotional barriers with his class.  Lazhar has trouble adjusting to the highly regulated manner in which he must teach - no touching of students, no administering of medication such as aspirin or sunscreen, no Balzac, etc..  Oddly, he doesn't seem concerned with the students addressing him by his first name which seems to be the norm at his school.  First name usage seems indicative of the school which is fairly progressive.  Lazhar's requirement that the students' desks be aligned in straight rows is viewed as quaint by the other teachers.  His school is all about engaging the students on their terms.

The two main students Lazhar interacts with is Simon, a troublemaker who seems to be acting out as a coping mechanism for Lachance's death and Alice, who was Simon's best friend before the incident.  Alice appears to be the most well-adjusted of the kids, writing a mature essay expressing her feelings about her teacher's death.  Lazhar wants to use Alice's composition as the starting point for group discussion in the class.  He feels the by-the-book response by the school is not allowing the children to properly grieve.  His suggestion is dismissed out of hand by the principal.

Lazhar knows something about grieving.  Lazhar is seeking political asylum in Canada.  His wife wrote a book critical of the government and extremists in Algeria.  Lazhar moved to Canada ahead of his family to set things up.  The day before she was to leave for Canada, Lazhar's wife & children were killed when their apartment building burned down.  The Canadian government is challenging his immigration status on the grounds that it was his wife who was in danger and that Lazhar can be safely repatriated to Algeria without concern for his safety.

Lazhar keeps his immigration status a secret from the principal as it would have disqualified him from his job.  Not only that but Lazhar was not a teacher in Algeria.  His wife was a college instructor but he was a restaurant owner.  One of the frustrating aspects of the film is that Lazhar doesn't fully explain why he takes the risk of falsifying his credentials and risking deportation in order to get the teaching job.  It's implied that his empathy for the children dealing with a shocking death is his sole motivation but that isn't really explored.

As the school year progresses, most of the children in his class respond well to his methods with Alice becoming his favorite pupil.  Simon is the major exception.  He carries around a photo of Ms. Lachance but has drawn angel wings and a hangman's noose around her neck.  When discovered, Simon is given further counseling. 

Simon and Lachance had a troubled relationship.  It is revealed that Simon accused Lachance of inappropriate contact (a peck on the cheek which may or may not have happened).  Simon's accusation may have been the straw that broke Lachance's back.  Lazhar is dumbfounded as to why a teacher would in a classroom on Wednesday night.  Simon thinks the answer is that she knew he would be the first person to discover the body because he had milk delivery duty on Thursday morning.  So Simon is carrying around a lot of guilt and resentment towards Lachance which he can't cope with.  Lazhar, having trouble adjusting to life without his family and in a strange land recognizes a kindred spirit in Simon. 

Monsieur Lazhar was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards.  With Monsieur Lazhar, I have seen four of the five films nominated for this year's Best Foreign Language Film.  The other three films were Bullhead, Footnote & A Separation (winner).  The film I have not seen is In Darkness.

Évelyne de la Chenelière, the playwright who wrote Bashir Lahzar (the play which the film is based on), plays Alice's mother - an airline pilot who is frequently out of town due to her work. 

Sophie Nélisse & Émilien Néron are outstanding as Alice & Simon, respectively.

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