Cinema Signal:

The Real French You Were Never Taught at School

. "The Chorus" (aka, "Les Choriste")

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 unruly kids.

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 a pass.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Well written
I've seen the movie and I disagree with the review
Site rating: 7

Sometimes we need dreams. And sometimes dreams do come true. So realistic or not, a good movie with able acting is still a good movie. throw in a beautiful soundtrack and who's left complaining? Just a thought.

                                                  ~~ skillfuldodger
Poorly written
I've seen the movie and I disagree with the review
Site rating: 4

I disagree as everyone has their own taste ...

                                                  ~~ limahlianelizabethe>
Whilst not disagreeing with the mood of this review I suppose that your writer could have just mentioned that the singing was beautiful.
                                                  ~~ Nony M.>
[Ed. note: I agree. An unintended omission.]

The singing alone is worth the price.

                                                  ~~ Ted F.>
Well written
I've seen the movie and I disagree with the review.
Site rating: 6
I thought it was a wonderful film. A bit predictable in places, but lovely. And unlike Mr. Holland's Opus, the music in the film is lovely and memorable.
                                                  ~~ Merrykate>

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Gerard Jugnot leading his chorus out of delinquency

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