|Chorus, The (Les Choristes)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 03 May 2005|
Under its original title of “Les Choristes,” this movie was a tremendous hit in France, spurring a surge of interest in boys’ choral singing, a fad that has yet to die out. The movie was nominated for a foreign-language Oscar, and received many favorable reviews in the U.S.
And granted, it is a very pleasant, warm movie that hits all the right notes; trouble is, it pretty much hits all the same notes. A famous conductor is visited one night by a man he doesn’t at first recognize, but finally realizes he was “Pépinot,” a boy who went to the same dismal school that he did in the late 1940s. The adult Pépinot has brought a journal kept by a prefect, Clément Mathieu, who arrived at the isolated school. It’s a boarding school, but far from wealthy, being supported principally by a local noblewoman. Rachin (François Berléand), is a cold, grasping near-tyrant who handles all problems quickly and efficiently: “action-reaction” is his motto, dealing out punishment or even (incredibly) a sentence in a kind of little boy jail.
But Mathieu is made of sterner stuff; the boys—all 14 or younger—quickly dub him “Chrome Dome” (or its French equivalent, Crane D’Obus) for his bald head and initially try to deal with him as they have with other teachers. But Mathieu, who’s silent about his past, treats them firmly but with respect and a sense of humor. When they swipe his folder, they find music inside. And then Mathieu finds music inside the boys.
He starts a boys’ chorus in the school, and is especially impressed by rebellious Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier), who has the voice of an angel. He also has a single mother, to whom Mathieu is shyly attracted. The movie tells the tale of the chorus and what happens to Mathieu.
It’s a warm, agreeable movie, very likable, but it’s lacking any real spice or flavor. For a moment, things start heading in a promising direction when a boy, Mondain (Grégory Gatignol), who’s already half-criminal, arrives at the school. But this development fades away into just a plot device, and the boy is written out of the story. It’s a very well-made movie, but it needed more conflict among the characters. Rachin is depicted somewhat differently than stern headmasters (or their equivalent) in other such movies; at one point, he seems to be falling under the happy spell of the developing chorus himself—but again, the screenplay by Philippe Lopes Curval and director Christophe Barratier skips past any attempt to develop on this idea. Rachin quickly reverts to type, and is still the same when we last see him.
We never know very much about Mathieu; when he arrives at the school, Fond de L’Étang, he has given up all interest in music. He has no children, but we never really know if he’d ever been married. His past stubbornly remains a blank; some details should have emerged in his dealings with the boys, he should have expressed something like a temper, he should have simply been WRONG once or twice. But he’s saintly from start to finish. Fortunately, he’s played by Gérard Jugnot, a twinkling actor who does suggest more depths to this prefect than the script does. His scenes with the boys are heartwarming and funny, and make the movie the largely pleasant experience it is.
You’ll have to buy the DVD solely for the experience of watching this likeable if thin movie, because it’s remarkably short on extras apart from a couple of skippable trailers. There’s no background on the movie, nothing on the director, stars or story, or even that it is a remake. There should have been something about the real training of this chorus, but apart from the movie, the DVD is filled with a whole lot of nothing.
Fortunately, the movie itself is sweet and likeable, ideal family fare—for families who like to read subtitles. (One small grace note: for once the subtitles translate the lyrics of the many songs. Stupidly, this is done with very subtitled movies.)