The Chorus, Les Choristes  (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,
To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.

William Congreve, The Mourning Bride

When Clement Mathiew (Gérard Jugnot) starts his job as a supervisor at a depressing school for troubled boys, “Fond De L’Etang” – literally “rock bottom,” he finds himself surrounded by prepubescent boys who are liars, trouble makers and lost souls assumed to be beyond reach. Worse, he’s working for a sociopathic head master, Rachin (François Berléand). But Mathieu is a kind, gentle, musician and he strikes upon a way to try to reach these souls and save them, much to Rachin’s annoyance.

It can be mightily disillusioning to be a film critic and see fine movies, like, for instance, “The Notebook,” ignored during the awards season while movies of inferior quality receive accolades. So I was dispirited as I entered the screening room for this small French film. There were only two other people at the screening. But this little film really lifted my spirits. I speak of “little film,” but in France in 2003, it was a runaway hit, doing better than “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.” It is France’s official 2004 Oscar Submission for Best Foreign Film.

Director-writer (with Philippe Lopes-Cural) Christophe Barratier, inspired by the 1945 film, “La Cage aux rossignols,” has fashioned an intelligent, involving tale of good and evil. He has a cast of exceptional boy actors, specifically Jean-Baptiste Maunier, who plays the gifted singer Pierre Morhange, and Maxence Perrin, who pays the very young Pépinot. But the people who really carry the film are Jugnot, who is captivating as the caring supervisor, and Berléand, who is delightfully hateful.

Barratier set his film in 1949, when children were endangered by a society still reeling from war, enemy occupation, economic hardship and rapid changes.  In the wake of World War II, many children remained orphaned, abandoned or simply disrupted or disturbed by the terror of the times.  To address this issue, the French government set up a state-run network of “correctional houses.” These institutions were almost universally founded on the child-rearing philosophy of the day, which in the “spare the rod, spoil the child” tradition demanded a strict rule of law, military-like discipline, zero-tolerance policies and heavy-handed physical punishment. So throughout the film Rachin and his subordinates voice the litany, “action-reaction,” meaning react to transgressions immediately and brutally.

Barratier directed the film with a deft hand.I’m very fond of what, in musical terms is called legato, that is, ‘connected’ or ‘flowing,’” he says. “I prefer that to a frenetic and shaky style. So there are lots travel shots, pans, dissolves and fades to black in THE CHORUS (LES CHORISTES). I also wanted elegant transitions from scene to scene, especially in the parts with singing, which work with some quick cuts, to create a kind of musical rhythm.”

What lifted my spirits was that this was a film without an agenda. It showed that kindness can triumph over harsh discipline. There’s no political point to be made, as there is in so many Hollywood produced films currently. This is just a good, sweet film with a great script, terrific directing, wonderful acting and an uplifting moral. I say, don’t miss it. (In French with subtitles).

January 13, 2005

The End