Ever since I saw "Mr. Holland's Opus" starring Richard Dreyfuss in 1995, I've
looked forward to another movie with a similar theme of overcoming problems
in a school through the inspirational effect of music. I like the idea of
wayward kids finding discipline through a response to the art and a great
teacher. As long as it doesn't become too formulaic, it seems like a
promising framework for redemption and drama.
One classroom success stemming from the role-model influence of a teacher was
Michelle Pfeiffer enrollment in "Dangerous Minds" of 1995, in which she
transformed juvenile street criminals by virtue of respect for her ex-marine
no-nonsense leadership. There's also, "Stand and Deliver" to lead the way in
this genre and the corny "Pay It Forward" to show where not to go with it.
And, now, from France we have "The Chorus," which fits the latter category.
The necessary elements are in place: a school that's one step away from a
prison, a cruel martinet for a principal to whom capital punishment is the
way of life, a classroom of delinquents to whom discipline is about as
meaningful as a Greek dictionary, and a new supervisor with a great soul who
is going to turn all that around.
The story is told as a reminiscence between two adult classmates of
supervisor Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot), Pierre Morhange (Jacques Perrin)
and Pepinot (Didier Flamand). In the warm glow of nostalgia, they commence
the tale with their old instructor's arrival at the Fond de l'Etang (rock
bottom) campus to quickly find out that the man he's working for, principal
Rachin (Francois Berleand), is a tyrant whose approach to order is what he
emphasizes as "Action -- Reaction" or, in other words, a term in solitary
confinement in a dark, barred cell.
Even as Berleand is indoctrinating Mathieu in his rules and policies, the
handy-man Maxence (Jean-Paul Bonnaire) has been seriously injured by a
booby-trapped office door. Privileges will be denied until the guilty party
is revealed, etc. etc, and we consequently find the culprit to be one of the
Mathieu is also forewarned about the other problem kids in his class and,
as though to convince us of the truth about what's ahead of him, his arrival
at class is preceded by a glimpse of general mayhem. He's quickly dubbed
"baldy" by one of the class miscreants, but treated with a respite of silence
brewing with disrespect while his measure is taken. He starts his
introduction of control by asserting his leadership and his own brand of
justice as applicable to the crime.
But this isn't what achieves the turnaround in the behavior of these
ill-behaving dissidents. That accomplishment is borne of the kids' taking so
well and so totally to Mathieu's formation of a choir. Song soothes the
savage beast residing in the wild heart of delinquents. The story makes a
fine point of what the transformation does for Mathieu's own soul as a failed
composer who swore that he'd never practice his art again. So, in filling
the bad boys' souls with something meaningful, he is himself restored. Point
taken and noted.
If all that seems very pat, let me assure you it is. It's a concocted fable
designed from every institutional stereotype. Every phrase of it is
familiar and predictable, down to the singing prodigy (Jean-Baptiste
Maunier), the incorrigible bully (Gregory Gatignol), the artificial
compassion. The sole note of originality is, perhaps, in the development of
a brief unrequited romance Mathieu feels for his prodigy's slender,
attractive mother (Marie Bunel).
Christophe Barratier's film is cast with able performers. Pugnol has all
the attributes of a teddy bear with an unassailably good soul. Bunel is
quite charming. Maunier had to have been found from within the world of
music -- his voice pure and enveloping (though his acting less so).
Barratier previously produced Jacques Perrin's soaring "Winged Migration".
Seems like a rearrangement of hats, this time out.
Released in time to warm the chest for the holidays, it's a chestnut that
sentiment-lovers will take to like kids in a toystore. Apparently, France is
filled with these, making "Les Choriste" a big hit there and the country's
pick for Best Foreign Language film of the year. But those of us who prefer
our cup of drama without a sweetness filter will be loutish enough to give it
~~ Jules Brenner