A gigantic hit in France, Christophe Barratier’s feature-film début, Les choristes / The Chorus, is the newest cinematic incarnation of that age-old theme: the teacher who, through firmness, kindness, and understanding – mostly kindness and understanding – tames the savage hearts of his/her pupils.
In addition to those qualities, the boarding-school teacher in Les choristes, like the one played by Noël-Noël in La
cage aux rossignols / A Cage of Nightingales back in 1945, also brings music into the lives of his students, a rowdy bunch of future bank robbers, corrupt politicians, and serial killers. Music – or more specifically, singing – saves the rebellious boys (and those around them) from a myriad fates worse than death.
Les choristes begins with two middle-aged men, the renowned French conductor Pierre Morhange (Jacques Perrin) and an old friend, Pépinot (Didier Flamand), who are brought together by the death of their old music teacher. Before you can say flashback, they start reminiscing about their days at a boarding school for boys.
In 1949, the unemployed music teacher Clément Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot) arrives at the school to work as a teacher-cum-supervisor. The boys are a bunch of difficult, quasi-murderous brats who, according to the strict disciplinarian headmaster Rachin (François Berléand), will only learn to behave themselves if they are either beaten with a stick or put in solitary confinement – or, preferably, both.
Mathieu, however, thinks otherwise. Although he has been warned that these boys are monsters disguised as human beings, he takes a liking to them, especially to the gifted, angelic-looking Pierre (Jean-Baptiste Maunier, photo) and the young orphan Pépinot (Maxence Perrin, Jacques’ real-life son), who every weekend waits in vain at the gate for a visit from his parents.
Clément decides to teach the boys to sing, and becomes mesmerized by Pierre’s heavenly voice. The boys, for their part, learn to trust and respect their teacher. Problems arise when the headmaster begins feeling threatened by Clément’s success, especially when a particularly troublesome youth arrives at the school. Guess who eventually wins.
For treacle like this to work, several elements must be present: a screenplay full of humor and pathos (such as Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s for the more elaborate and more personal Madame Sousatzka); one or more solid performances (think of Shirley MacLaine’s private tutor Madame Sousatzka, or Meryl Streep’s real-life violin teacher Roberta Guaspari in Music of the Heart); the appropriately tender directorial touch (for instance, Tay Garnett’s in the charmingly nostalgic 1941 drama Cheers for Miss Bishop); and/or a singing & crying Lulu (“A friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong. That’s a lot to learn, What, what can I give you in return?”).
Since MacLaine, Streep, and Lulu are nowhere to be seen (or heard) in Les choristes, while Barratier’s direction and screenplay (with Philippe Lopes-Curval) proudly replace humor and pathos with cutesiness and bathos, this musicalized “Au prof avec amour” will appeal only to those who like their movies dripping with syrup.
Considering the film’s blockbuster status in a number of countries, there are millions of such filmgoers out there. Those will surely not be disappointed with Les choristes – just make sure you check your blood-sugar level before entering the theater.
LES CHORISTES / THE CHORUS (2004). Director: Christophe Barratier. Cast: Gérard Jugnot, François Berléand, Jean-Baptiste Maunier, Kad Merad, Marie Bunel, Jacques Perrin, Maxence Perrin, Didier Flamand, Grégory Gatignol, Thomas Blumenthal. Screenplay: Christophe Barratier and Philippe Lopes-Curval; inspired by the 1945 motion picture La cage aux rossignols / A Cage of Nightingales, written by Georges Chaperot, Noël-Noël, and René Wheeler.