This checklist will take a look at two of the five foreign film nominees. I will have reviews of the others, but I wanted to get these two out now because they constitute a rarity for us. They are both early reviews!!!! Bullhead opens up today and Monsieur Lazhar doesn’t open until April.
Bullhead – Nominated for Best Foreign Film
This film is nothing if not original. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as the hormone mafia, and yet here is an entire movie set inside that world. The subject matter is not the only aspect contributing to the film’s uniqueness. The main character is a person I’ve never seen in film before; the structure and tone are presented in challenging ways. I have a few issues with it, but this is an exciting and distinctive debut from writer/director Michael R. Roskam, and the emergence of a major new acting talent in Matthias Schoenaerts.
Matthias is Jacky, the film’s hulking lead. Jacky runs a cattle farm, trafficking in illegal hormones used to beef up the beef. Jacky is also heavy into steroid use himself, but we learn that this is much more than an out of control addiction. When a federal agent is murdered and a new business venture brings up buried secrets from Jacky’s past, a few too many coincidences send Jacky down a destructive path.
There’s more to Jacky than roid rage in overdrive. The rage is there, but it masks a stunted and pained personality Jacky couldn’t share if he wanted to. It’s obviously a very demanding physical performance, which Matthias achieves brilliantly. With his lumbering walk, crooked nose, and lazy eye, he looks like a broken down boxer. But it’s through his gaze that the audience recognizes his constant inner struggle.
Other than Matthias, the rest of the cast is populated with wonderfully angled and odd-faced actors. They not only feel like real people from this underground world, they give the viewer something interesting to look at. I especially dug the face from Jacky’s past, Diederik (Jeroen Perceval). He looks like the Dutch John Malkovich and gives a performance to match.
I did have a hard time following the first half of the film. They dive into it and only later do they key you into what was happening. The sudden flashback sequence is also very jarring, but necessary. The specificity of the violence felt forced in a way, even if it serves a goal. I realize the mafia-angle is only there as a launching point into a character study; I only wish they made that plot as interesting as the character. There’s an important female character who becomes the main focus of the finale, but I didn’t care for this plot thread that much. I’d rather it shifted back to Diederik, but it doesn’t, so the ending feels like a whimper.
However, it is refreshing to watch a crime film find a new area of crime to explore. And the filmmakers are intelligent enough to know that guns and action are not the only things that make the genre work. It stumbles from time to time, but the tremendous lead and the novel story counter any missteps.
Monsieur Lazhar – Nominated for Best Foreign Film
Monsieur Lazhar is one of those films that are so simple, if you’re not careful it will sneak up on you and knock you on your ass. This effortlessness conceals heaps of emotion. It’s not that the movie pulls the rug out from under you or deceives you, but rather gracefully brings you into its orbit. I did not find myself bowled over at the end, but I can certainly appreciate the refinement in the film’s endeavor.
The titular character is an Algerian refugee now living in Quebec. Lazhar is introduced inquiring about an open teaching position at the local middle school. We then follow him as he struggles to adapt to his new environment, while at the same time his students cope with more than just his strange teaching style. It is slowly revealed why Lazhar appears so aloof and why he fled Algeria. They aren’t treated as revelations, just more character information, and more depth.
The movie is a fine study in reserve. Writer/Director Philippe Falardeau doesn’t overstate the themes but he doesn’t bury them under inscrutable layers either. Grief can be devastating, and life lessons aren’t easily learned (harder still in the constrictions of a classroom). It could crumble under an umbrella of schmaltz, but the movie is good enough to side step the obvious clichés and sticks to being a simple delight.
There are two major reasons this film works so well: the lead performance from Fellag as Lazhar and the wonderful child actors. Fellag is charming and carries a certain dignity in his stance and in his step. He also brings a special sadness to the role; it doesn’t encourage pity but it still breaks your heart. And the children aren’t overly cute. They feel like real students and not archetypes. They supply some of the film’s best laughs and the highest drama. The two kids that really deliver are Alice (Sophie Nelisse) and Simon (Émilien Neron). Alice reminds me of a more sophisticated Anna Chlumsky, and Simon is like a miniature Mathieu Amalric, with his simmering yet impotent rage.
It might not seem like a lot, but there are more than a few memorable moments. Many topics such as immigration, language, abandonment, and bureaucracy are all touched upon. But at its core, this is a film about the unique bond between teachers and students. There have been many great films set inside a classroom, and while this one might not be a classic, it’s a good addition to genre.
Might dive into some shorts next… and I know you all love short filmmaking! Come back and don’t forget to read any Parts you missed.