Sunday, March 13, 2005

Review - The Chorus (Les choristes)

Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot) is an idealistic teacher who arrives at boys’ boarding school shortly after the second world war. He is immediately startled by the brutal methods that are employed by the fierce principal Rachin (Francois Berleand) to keep these troubled boys in check. But Mathieu sees some potential in his students; after hearing them sing he notices a couple of them possess good voices. Perhaps this former musician could shape them into a choir?

It is giving nothing away to say that The Chorus has a happy ending. Mathieu is following in the footsteps of Glenn Holland (Mr Holland’s Opus), Mr Chipping (Goodbye Mr Chips), John Keating (Dead Poet’s Society), Louanne Johnson (Dangerous Minds), Mark Thackeray (To Sir, With Love) and countless other inspirational movie teachers. All these characters enter a difficult environment filled with troubled youths and face great resistance at first, but soon their influence unlocks the students’ inner talents and has a profound effect on each of their lives. Done well, this kind of formula filmmaking can certainly be moving and thought-provoking but to do that a film must still attempt to add a little something of their own to that formula. It’s here that The Chorus fails.

First off, let's discuss the things that The Chorus gets right. In the lead role Gerard Jugnot is hugely impressive as the well-meaning Mathieu, giving a humane and completely believable performance. He seems to have a genuinely good relationship with the kids and the rest of the adult cast manage to give strong displays too; especially Berleand, who makes the best of a one-dimensional role. The children themselves are well cast, with Jean-Baptiste Maunier proving to be the real standout as Mathieu’s star pupil. The whole thing is nicely shot by Dominique Gentil and Carlo Varini, and there is a definite, if sickeningly manipulative, emotional pull in the final stages of the film.

But all this is to the service of a depressingly conventional, clumsy, shallow screenplay which simply has nothing new to say. The film begins with one Mathieu’s former students (Jaques Perrin), who is now the world’s greatest conductor (a series of magazine covers bluntly reinforce the point), returning home for his mother’s funeral. Here he meets one of his fellow classmates, who has bought Mathieu’s old diary along, and the pair start to reminisce the whole story. The plot then crawls from predictable storyline A to predictable storyline B without a single surprise along the way.

The direction, from first-timer Christophe Barratier, is heavy-handed and bland and the film fails to make the most of its setting. Other than a couple of occasions, when reference is made to children losing parents under Nazi occupation, there is no sign that this film is set in a country which was ravaged by war only four years previously, and where collaboration was still a major issue. The Chorus could be taking place in any country, at any time, and no attempt is made to place this simple-minded film in any kind of historical context.

The most depressing aspect of The Chorus is the notion that this simplistic, corny film has been made so obviously with the American audience in mind. The filmmakers have attempted to make it as palatable as possible to a public which normally wouldn’t dream of seeing a foreign-language film, and it has proved predictably successful. Shockingly, the French even selected it as their official entry for the Academy Awards, ahead of immeasurably superior fare (such as Cedric Kahn’s Red Lights, Agnes Jaoui’s Look at Me or Francois Ozon's magnificent 5x2), and it ended up as one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language film. Clearly, they knew the audience they were aiming for.

There is one thing which prevents The Chorus from being a complete write-off, and that is the uplifting score provided by the boys themselves. It will stay with you long after the pre-programmed, dishonest sentimentality of the rest of the film has been forgotten.