The Chorus, Les
by Tony Medley
Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,
To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.
William Congreve, The Mourning Bride
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.
(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.
the film with a deft hand.
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