MOVIE REVIEW- Unbelievable: But fun and inspiring anyway
Published March 17, 2005, in issue 0411 of the Hook
BY STEVE WARREN FILM@READTHEHOOK.COM
Funding for arts education isn't a problem in Europe the way it is here, so The Chorus (Les Choristes), which makes a strong case for it, should be considered a gift to us from nos amis, the French.
The closest American equivalent, Music of the Heart, got mired in sentimental clichés. So does The Chorus, but clichés seem more natural in French, cliché being a French word.
This is another in the sub-genre of Educators Who Made a Difference movies. It opened against Coach Carter in New York to show sports can clobber the arts at the box office.
The story is set in 1949 but framed by a reunion of two former schoolmates 50 years later. Pepinot (Didier Flamand) brings to Pierre Morhange (Jacques Perrin), "the world's greatest conductor," a journal kept by Clément Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot), their teacher in that pivotal year.
The boys are students at a "boarding school for difficult children," Fond de l'Etang (Rock Bottom– how symbolic can you get?), ruled by the heavy hand of Principal Rachin (François Berléand). His policy is "Action...Reaction," meaning squelch possible trouble at the first sign, usually by overreacting. If the boys weren't discipline problems before they came to the school, they are now.
Mathieu believes they just need a little T.L.C. and Do Re Mi. A failed musician who had despaired of ever working in that field again, he's inspired by the boys' response to his effort to start a choir.
Rachin is another story. His favorite word is "Silence!" and singing doesn't go with that. (Even though the school wouldn't attract la crème de la crème, he's too much of an idiot to be believed.)
Few of the boys have much individual talent, but Mathieu makes them sound good collectively. The diva who emerges is Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier), who has an angelic face and a voice to match but is troubled by jealousy over the way men (including Mathieu) and boys alike react to his single mother, Violette (Marie Bunel).
Just when Mathieu appears to have tamed the minor miscreants, a major hardcase, Mondain (Grégory Gatignol), is thrown into the school to cause new disruption.
The conflicts come across as contrived in the script, co-written by director Christophe Barratier, but at least we're spared a climactic competition in which the boys win the Choral Olympics or something. The closest The Chorus comes to that is a recital in which the boys sing for a countess (Carole Weiss) who's the school's benefactress.
Good acting, good music, and the good feeling it leaves you with more than compensate for a lack of credibility in The Chorus. It whistles a happy tune.