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Taking France by storm this summer, Les choristes purportedly led to a surge in applications to join choirs all over the country. The magic is unquestionably in the music, but I'll come to that later.
The success of Les choristes as a film (with or without the divine music) lies in its not trying to be anything more than what it is, a simple tale that opens up to you instead of manipulating you. You'll find neither heart-breaking poignancy nor rousing heroism. Within the short duration of a school term or two he spent with the somewhat notorious boarding school, teacher and musician Clement Mathieu had his modest ambition fulfilled, of having a choir sing the music he wrote, then moved along to a continuously modest life of teaching and music. Talented protégé Pierre Morhange did achieve fame and success, but we have essentially been spared laboured scenes of Titanic struggles or exuberant jubilation. To ensure that I'm not misleading towards the other extreme, let me hasten to add that Les choristes does touch our hearts. It does this gently, sensibly.
But in the end, it's the music. Purely the celestial beauty of the music alone will brings tears to the appreciative audiences' eyes. The story is touching. The character are likable. But the ultimate magic is the choir and boy soprano Jean-Baptiste Maunier chosen from two thousand auditions. Such a magical choice.
There's an air of romance surrounding wayward boys, particularly in the
French tradition, where they tend to be poetic as well as mischievous.
In "The Chorus," Christophe Barratier draws on this tradition and adds
some lovely vocal sounds. "The Chorus" is about an "internat" or reform
school where a new principal who writes music tames his young charges,
some naughty, some just abandoned, by teaching them to sing in a boys'
chorus. The school director, Rachin (sounds like Nurse Ratched),
François Berléand (of Jacquot's "The School of Flesh"), is a prissy
sadist who preaches a philosophy of instant punishment for all real or
imagined wrongdoing ("action-reaction"); but when the new principal,
Clément Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot) shows up with a soft approach to his
classes and his supervisory duties, he finds allies among the faculty
"The Chorus" advances the frequently screened theory that delinquent kids are better charmed than chastened; that if you can find a positive activity they excel in, the misbehavior will die out.
Barratier has had good success with his young actors. The most important boy is the "tête d'ange" (head of an angel), tall, fair-haired Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier), who's often in trouble and refuses to join the choir, till Mathieu catches him singing by himself and discovers his star soloist. Morhange's voice possesses not only a rich natural musicality but the haunting purity only boy sopranos have. Morhange has the most attractive mother, and Mathieu's success in encouraging the boy's singing makes the pudgy, bald man fantasize romance with her -- thus incidentally clearing himself of the suspicion of pedophilia that tends to haunt any all-boys school setting. Mathieu's romantic dream is futile, and he humbly fades away at the story's end, like some Gallic pied piper of boy soprano-dom.
"The Chorus" takes place in post-war France and its topic and look establish immediate links with a bevy of seminal French films. Wayward French boys turn up in boarding schools that are places of both repression and refuge, as you can see in Jean Vigo's school revolution in "Zero for Conduct" (1933). The beloved textbook of the French bad-boy tradition is Alain-Fournier's "Le Grand Meaulnes" (The Wanderer), which was notably filmed by Jean-Pierre Albicocco in 1967. The tradition becomes more autobiographical in Truffaut's 1959 400 Blows, which introduced the director's alter ego, Jean-Pierre Léaud; and in Malle's moving and long-contemplated memoir of a boarding school in wartime, "Au Revoir les Enfants" (1987). Jean Cocteau mythologized a bad-boy idol who haunted him all his life in the Dargélos of "Les Enfants Terribles" (1950), made into yet another classic film by Jean-Pierre Melville. This whole idea has remaining traces in the feral youth Gaspard Ulliel plays in André Téchiné's recent "Strayed." "The Chorus," it is true, is a relatively conventional entry; except for adding music, it rides upon, rather than transcends, the tradition. But it's a warm story with much charm and little pretension.
Barratier himself is a talented musician who, like Mathieu, has drifted into other things. A trained classical guitarist, he won several international competitions after studying at the prestigious École Normale de Musique in Paris, and played professionally for several years. But in 1991 he joined Galatée films to train under his uncle, the renowned actor, producer and writer Jacques Perrin -- who bookends "The Chorus" as a Morhange who has grown up into a famous classical conductor. For the next decade Barratier was an associate producer and collaborated with Perrin on "Children of Lumière," "Microcosmos," "Himalaya" and "Winged Migration." Now he has turned his hand to fiction and directed his own film, with success. There is a risk of preciosity and sweetness, mostly avoided by the dryness of both Mathieu and Rachin as characters, as well as the surviving wickedness of the boys, especially an arch bad-boy, Mondain (Grégory Gatignol). The point of view is Mathieu's and the mature Morhange's, so the film doesn't go as deep into the boys' psyches as it goes into their voice boxes.
The director is well connected. He's the son of film actress Eva Simonet and besides his uncle his grandparents were also theater people. The Chorus was top box office in France after its release in March 2004. The French critical reception was pretty mixed, and the film's been reviled by some in the United States as (in one writer's words) "unbelievably inane, saccharine, and derivative"; "all smooth, nutrient-free clichés." Even thumbs-up king Roger Ebert didn't like it: "this feels more like a Hollywood wannabe than a French film," he wrote. "Where's the quirkiness, the nuance, the deeper levels?" But it's really a cleanly made, simple, humanistic, and satisfying little film with far less pandering than its critics claim, and whether we like it or not, it's the French Best Foreign Oscar entry, and the little chorus is likely to perform " Vois sur ton chemin" on Awards night (if their voices haven't changed). The relatively minimal mise-en-scène and the period setting link it more with its classic film antecedents than with the overproduced "Very Long Engagement" (Jeunet's film's Oscar nominations are for décor and photography). Derivative and conventionally themed? Yes. Barratier has acknowledged "The Chorus's" inspiration in an earlier film, "La Cage aux Rossignols" (The Nightingales' Cage, 1945), which has the same premise -- and anyone can name a long list of movies about teachers who charm their wayward flock. None of them feels -- or sounds -- quite like this movie, though. And the boys do their own singing: the "tête d'ange" really has the "voix d'ange." American reviewers, missing the nuances, plug Les Choristes into "Mr. Holland's Opus" or "Dead Poets Society" and find it stereotypically schmaltzy. The gentler French critics don't see those crude comparisons and are able to call it "un beau film" and find in it a satisfying example of "cinéma populaire." We can too if we open up to it.
A delicious movie. Something wonderful is going to happen and I am not
talking just about the characters of the movie but the spectators. It's
so moving and at the same time it is not a sentimental one. The
freedom, the excitement, the amazing charm of discovering the life
through the music... I don't know French and I can say that the
soundtrack is so international that you don't need to understand the
words to feel its power, to receive the message...
Very often people agree or disagree with their opinions about a film... I watched the movie with a representative number of persons and all of them found the movie very recommendable and beautiful.
All of us were children and the magic of that unforgettable period of our lives is reflected in this great film.
8 out of 10...
The locale for this French sub-titled film is a locked fortress-like school for poor boys from broken homes, WWII orphans and juvenile delinquents, very Dickensian in feel. The principal of the school,is a detestable man who abuses students and teachers equally. You've seen the plot before, of course, and some of the characters are "stock" sorts. But the acting of the lead, the teacher who "saves" the students by luring them into singing, is portrayed charmingly by Gerard Jugnot. Mostly bald, a bit stocky and no beauty, he is nonetheless disarming. The boy soprano, Jean-Baptiste Maunier, has a wonderful voice, and the chorus is splendid. Particularly fine was the score, almost entirely original, by Bruno Colais. I was looking for something inspiring on this bitter cold inaugural day in the U.S. Les Choristes made my spirit soar and reaffirmed that kindness, generosity of self and the gift of music still have the power to change people's lives.
200 people were attending this movie in the theater, when the light
went back after the movie was finished, nobody had moved, all the eyes
were red. When Jean-Baptiste sings, it just takes you by your guts. The
story is fantastic, the music is magic, Jugnot is expectedly
grandiose... The picture itself is made "à la" 50s, it's very special
but truly desserves the highest awards. I cannot give anything below
10 here. I swear you'll love this movie, if you don't, get back to your
pop corn bucket and go and watch that Riddick sh1te, at least you'll
get what you desserve.
The excellent film "The Choir" takes us back to a France of the past
where the director Christophe Barratier and Philippe Lopes-Curval place
their story about a school for problem children.
In a way, we have seen similar situations where a good teacher is the catalyst for turning around a group of unruly students into good and productive young men and women. Mathieu Clement, is such a man. His kindness toward the children is returned to him by the students, as they respond to the way he teaches music to motivate and interest them. M. Clement has a keen sense of how to deal with the students; instead of the hard line approach the principal, Rachin, insists in dealing with them, he has other ways to make them change.
The music created by the film director, M. Barratier, and Bruno Coulais, gives the film the right tone. We also hear a song by Rameau, "La Nuit", which is sung with such sweetness that it disarms us and get us into the right mood for enjoying "The Choir" even more.
The film owes a great deal to Gerard Jugnot, who plays the kind teacher who sees possibilities among all these kids. His take on Mathiew Clement is the right one, because the children see in him someone that is the opposite of the other teachers and the mean principal. As the director of the school, Francois Berleand does a good job in portraying this egotistical man who can't see what his own cruelty is doing to the young people in his charge.
The children are as sweet as one expects them to be. Especially Jean Baptiste Maunier, who plays the young Pierre Morhange. Also an angelic Maxence Perrin enchants the viewer as the young orphan Pepinot. Marie Bunel plays Pierre's mother well.
This film is music to the ears of viewers, young and old.
This is funny how people get from one extreme to another about this movie. When I saw the movie it was in a Citadelle in an open air cinema by the French Riviera (Villefranche sur Mer, very very nice). The friend I went to see it with said to me: "I give you the tissues now because I predict you will cry like a baby". And I cried like a baby. The story made me think about Sister Act ONLY IN THE STORY!!! A failed musician converting a group of difficult children into a choir... But this version of the story is way above the American one. Gérard Jugnot is really great. I like him very much since he has abandoned his comic roles. I loved him in Le meilleur Espoir Feminin and Monsieur Batignole. I think he's an great actor as he can convey a lot of emotions, from laughter to sincere emotion. At last, the fact that all the children are not professional actors adds to the sincerity of the film which should won at least an Academy Award this year if the Americans still can be sensitive about sincerity...
Boys as a group are perhaps the least understood human beings among us. Les Choristes invites our understanding of their sensibility, sensitivity, and the ease with which they are treated badly -- in fact, have always been treated badly by institutions, educators and parents. The importance of fathers in their lives and their great need for a surrogate if the natural fathers are missing are beautifully explored in this film. The screenplay and its realization on screen are very effective in showing how the difficult combination of giving boys strong direction and tenderness and finding a way to their hearts can be accomplished. This film helps us understand how the same human creature can be hard and sullen one moment and sweetly spiritual the next, inaccessible one minute and needy the next. It is also an inspiring film for young men preparing to be teachers.
Two Continental European films with campus setting are on show right
now in town: Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar's "La mala educación" and
French director Christophe Barratier's "Les choristes". However, the
former deals with the devil which is pretty disturbing while the latter
the angels that touches the viewers' heart and soul. It blows in new
fresh air into the cinema world.
People may associate the film with the 1945 production "La cage aux rossignols". Yet, "Au revoir les enfants", "La gloire de mon père", "Le château de ma mere", "Nuovo cinema Paradiso" and the literature namely "Le Petit Chose" by Alphonse Daudet and the hugely popular series of René Goscinny's "Le Petit Nicolas" were rushing into my head when the film rolled on. They all share a number of common features: younger carefree days, reminiscence, scenic countryside, pastoral living etc, they are all ingredients of French fresh (salad) movie, warm, humane and unforgettable. The genre is perpetually popular and it is ever-lasting. Strangely the subject matter though is related to "To Sir, with Love", "Mr. Holland's Opus", they didn't come up to my mind immediately.
French people are capable of producing movies or books with nostalgic ideas, the power again captures the world's heart. A country with long history or brilliant history provides much space for artists, France is one of them. Perhaps the French have no incentive to push forward like the Brits or Americans or they are pessimistic about the future or they lack funds, many the French artists (of various art form) keep looking into history for inspiration. Many French global blockbusters are filmed in nostalgic background setting, "Amélie" is the one in the 50s or early 60s. Cruelly truthful is if we compare the development (in most areas) of the developed nations on the west and east Atlantic coasts, the UK and the USA are exactly more advanced.
Pierre, Pépinot, Le Querrec, spectacled Boniface and all the other children form not only a choir but an angelic choir. The boys' angelic voices has resounded inside my head for pretty long time. The angels rekindle Clément Mathieu's abandoned hope on music and hope again falls onto these young souls. On top of it, he is the unsung hero on the making of the world famous conductor Pierre Morhange. Mondain, apparently sexually harassed, is not a incurable boy but a boy in his quest for love. Mathieu wants to carry out his "experiment" on him. And the young boy knows the class tutor is a kind and reasonable teacher. His smile to Mathieu before he is pulled away by the police tells it all.
Mathieu believes in moral education (or educating children in love) which is entirely different from iron-handed Rachin's hard-line pedagogical conviction and administration. Should time be given, Mondain would find his way out from the excruciating self-destruction. Just a side thought: Hong Kong educators should have more thought on dealing with "problem students", from time to time what these young people need is a tender light guiding them onto a path which they can have satisfaction and security. Well, we are somehow regressing now.
As a public school choir director I was thrilled to see a movie that
celebrated the joy of singing. At the end of the semester I ran "The
Chorus" for all of my students and the response was astounding. A
French film with subtitles that kept the rehearsal room totally silent
for two days of classes. Fantastic.
I sincerely hope this fine film is given an honest opportunity to succeed in the U.S. We don't need a Disney remake in English with updated pop songs. This charming import is the real deal.
As a teacher I always trust the sometimes brutal honesty that high school students express about films and music. My experience this semester has been that "The Chorus" is a winner.
If you like this movie recommend it to others as it deserves to find its audience.
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