“Les Choristes" – The Little French Film That Could
- Thursday, January 27, 2005
Release Date: January 28, 2004
Rating: PG-13 (for some language/sexual references and violence)
Genre: Drama – in French with subtitles
Run Time: 1 hrs. 35 min.
Director: Christophe Barratier
Actors: Gérard Jugnot, François Berléand, Jean-Baptiste Maunier, Jacques Perrin, Kad Merad, Marie Bunel, Gregory Gatignol
It’s the little French film that could. Released almost a year ago in Europe, “The Chorus” (original title: “Les Choristes”) outsold “Harry Potter” at the French box office. The film’s soundtrack CD, which features choral music written by leading film composer Bruno Coulais, has been number one across the French charts. All over that country, young people are clamoring to join choruses for the first time. And now, this small-budget film by a novice director may just win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
Clément Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot) arrives at Fond de l’Etang boarding school for delinquent boys, where he has accepted a teaching position. A music instructor who writes scores in his spare time, Mathieu is shocked at the harsh discipline inflicted by Rachin (François Berléand), the school’s headmaster. Faced with the petulant, unruly boys, Mathieu can’t bring himself to abide by the school rules, which dictate physical punishment and isolation for even the slightest infraction (“Action – reaction!”). Instead, he wrangles the boys into a choir and teaches them to sing.
To Mathieu’s delight, he discovers a rare singing voice in the troublesome Pierre Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier). As a result, he begins to mentor the young man, much to the delight of Morhange’s mother, Violette (Marie Bunel). Soon, Violette’s visits to the school take on a romantic interest in Mathieu. But just as Pierre begins to make progress, a new student – a juvenile delinquent who has no interest in music – arrives. Faced with the boy’s vicious defiance, Rachin ups the ante, to no avail. Soon, the entire school has been turned on its head.
Largely unknown to Americans, Gérard Jugnot has acted in 76 films, written 15 screenplays and directed a dozen more. Even more accomplished is fellow cast member François Berléand, who has appeared in an astounding 142 films. Together, the two are a veritable force in French film, and their roles in director Christophe Barratier’s “The Chorus” should only add to their repertoire.
It’s Barratier’s first feature film, which is astonishing, given the quality. The sets are simple (an old abandoned castle serves as the school) but effective – just like the lighting, which moves from dreariness to bright sunlight along with the plot. Barratier has also done a very good job with his bevy of child actors – no easy task. And, under his direction, Jugnot and Berléand give notable performances. Alternating between insecure maladroit and confident counselor, Jugnot gives us a character to admire in Mathieu. We pity him for his loneliness and lack of financial means, but we dream of discovering similar courage in the face of such discouragement. Though his role is not as significant, and serves mainly as a foil to Jugnot’s character, Berléand is just as good – if a tad too one-dimensional. And newcomer Maunier, as the young Pierre, is a delight.
The plot isn’t new, of course. A humble, self-sacrificing teacher, driven to change children’s lives, succeeds at his calling only to be thwarted by the self-serving authorities. There’s a reason this plot keeps resurfacing, however, and that films like “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “Dead Poet’s Society” have been so successful. Literature professors insist that there aren’t but a few plots around, anyway, so that it’s what is done with them that matters. Fortunately, under Barratier’s direction, this popular tale once again takes on new life.
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