“The moment of the swoon induced by art can alter attitude forever.”
Sometimes I wonder if the two sexes really understand what attracts us in each other. A recent foreign movie at The Screen brought that question to mind yet again.
The title is “Monsieur Lazhar,” and it is a Canadian film in French with English subtitles. The setting is a school that has been traumatized by tragedy–a beloved teacher has hanged herself in her classroom–and the main character takes over her class. He has represented to the principal that he is a teacher, but he is actually a former restaurateur who is seeking political asylum from Algeria, and he is dealing with grief from a personal tragedy of his own.
I attended the movie with two friends, and we were interested because we all were or had been teachers. The one who is currently employed in the school system was worn out and stressed by all the year-end paperwork. There were notes throughout the movie about the kind of bureaucratic interference that besets principals and teachers everywhere. At one point for example, the students, who are around age 11, inform Bachir (the first name they have affectionately decided to call Monsieur Lazhar) that there is no longer any such thing as an “adjective.” It is now called something like a “determinant possessive,” which is representative of the gobbledy-gook afoot in the educational bureaucracy.
The production seems at times more like a documentary, and there is none of the overwrought Hollywoodism that has become the accepted standard of excellence. The female principal looks haggard at times, and an attractive teacher wears no make-up. You can hear footsteps on hardwood floors, the rattle of paper, and the sound of swallowing when Bachir takes a drink of wine in one scene. I could almost smell chalk in the classrom and the scent of young bodies that had perspired during recess.
As the year progresses at a measured pace through the seasons, it feels as though the audience is a daily companion as Bachir fumbles with curriculum, grades papers, and works with the children to encourage, reassure, and comfort them in dealing with the tragedy. As I said, he has misrepresented himself, but he is sensitive and earnest and continually tries to do the right thing in his role as teacher. Nevertheless there are moments when he seems–and I hate to say this–inadequate.
With regard to his appearance, Bachir is not especially attractive. He is dark-haired and has a goatee and a large nose. He is always well dressed in slacks, shirt, and sports coat. His physique is trim but nothing fancy. What you notice most is his vulnerability, which is both psychic and professional. Then comes this brilliant scene.
Bachir has worked until dark in his classroom, and he is grading papers at his desk when he becomes aware of the sound of a school party downstairs. He stands up and goes to the window to listen to the drums of some form of Middle Eastern music. (The school is multicultural.) His back is to the camera, and you can see his body slowly tune in to the drum beat. The hands begin to flicker in time, the arms lift just a bit and extend, and the hips begin to move ever so slightly as the music takes form in his imagination. With exquisite subtlety and masculine grace, he begins to dance as in another world. Swoon time.
It lasts for only a minute or so, and when Bachir becomes aware of a watching teacher, the spell is broken. The sense of loss is acute. The director has left his feminine audience with an unforgettable moment, a glimpse of the full range of a complex personality that takes Bachir from being merely sympathetic and endearing to sexually desirable.
The portrayal of Bachir by the actor Mohamed Fallag is brilliant, and so is the movie. As the lights came on after the story went dark, my friends and I sat in various stages of recovery, one dabbing at teary eyes. “Monsieur Lazhar” is a movie that addresses the best in the human spirit. I realized only later that the emotional response it evokes would cancel out any fear of or judgment against Bachir because he is undoubtedly Muslim. The moment of the swoon induced by art can alter attitude forever–and challenge conventional thought about what the feminine responds to most powerfully in the masculine.