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Caged
Birds
Sing

by Chris Knipp

 

There's an air of romance surrounding wayward boys, particularly in the French tradition, where they tend to be poetic as well as mischievous. In The Chorus, Christophe Barratier draws on this tradition and adds some lovely vocal sounds. The Chorus is about an "internat" or reform school where a new principal who writes music tames his young charges, some naughty, some just abandoned, by teaching them to sing in a boys' chorus. The school director, Rachin (sounds like Nurse Ratched), François Berléand (of Jacquot's The School of Flesh), is a prissy meany who preaches a philosophy of instant punishment for all real or imagined wrongdoing ("action-reaction"); but when the new principal, Clément Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot) shows up with a soft approach to his classes and his supervisory duties, he finds allies among the faculty and staff. The Chorus advances the frequently screened theory that delinquent kids are better charmed than chastened; that if you can find a positive activity they excel in, the misbehavior will die out.

Barratier has had good success with his young actors. The most important boy is the "tête d'ange" (head of an angel), tall, fair-haired Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier), who's often in trouble and refuses to join the choir, till Mathieu catches him singing by himself and discovers his star soloist. Morhange's voice possesses not only a rich natural musicality but the haunting purity only boy sopranos have. Morhange has the most attractive mother, and Mathieu's success in encouraging the boy's singing makes the pudgy, bald man fantasize romance with her -- thus incidentally clearing himself of the suspicion of pedophilia that tends to haunt any all-boys school setting.

The Chorus takes place in post-war France, and its topic and look establish immediate links with a bevy of seminal French films. Wayward French boys turn up in boarding schools that are places of both repression and refuge, as you can see in Jean Vigo's school revolution in Zero for Conduct (1933). The beloved textbook of the French bad-boy tradition is Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes (The Wanderer), which was notably filmed by Jean-Pierre Albicocco in 1967. The tradition becomes more autobiographical in Truffaut's 1959 400 Blows, which introduced the director's alter ego, Jean-Pierre Léaud; and in Malle's moving and long-contemplated memoir of a boarding school in wartime, Au Revoir les Enfants (1987). Jean Cocteau mythologized a bad-boy idol who haunted him all his life in the Dargélos of Les Enfants Terribles (1950), made into yet another classic film by Jean-Pierre Melville. This whole idea has remaining traces in the feral youth Gaspard Ulliel plays in André Téchiné's recent Strayed . The Chorus, it is true, is a relatively conventional entry; except for adding music, it rides upon, rather than transcends, the tradition. But it's a warm story with much charm and little pretension.

Barratier himself is a talented musician who, like Mathieu, has drifted into other things. A trained classical guitarist, he won several international competitions after studying at the prestigious École Normale de Musique in Paris, and played professionally for several years. But in 1991 he joined Galatée films to train under his uncle, the renowned actor, producer and writer Jacques Perrin -- who bookends The Chorus as a Morhange who has grown up into a famous classical conductor. For the next decade Barratier was an associate producer and collaborated with Perrin on Children of Lumière, Microcosmos, Himalaya and Winged Migration. Now he has turned his hand to fiction and directed his own film, with success. There is a risk of preciosity and sweetness, mostly avoided by the dryness of both Mathieu and Rachin as characters, as well as the surviving wickedness of the boys, especially an arch bad-boy, Mondain (Grégory Gatignol). The point of view is Mathieu's and the mature Morhange's, so the film doesn't go as deep into the boys' psyches as it goes into their voice boxes.

The director is well connected. He's the son of film actress Eva Simonet and besides his uncle his grandparents were also theater people. The Chorus was top box office in France after its release in March 2004. The French critical reception was pretty mixed, and the film's been reviled by some in the United States as (in one writer's words) "unbelievably inane, saccharine, and derivative"; "all smooth, nutrient-free clichés." Even thumbs-up king Roger Ebert didn't like it: "this feels more like a Hollywood wannabe than a French film," he wrote. "Where's the quirkiness, the nuance, the deeper levels?" But it's really a cleanly made, simple, humanistic, and satisfying little film with far less pandering than its critics claim,  And whether we like it or not, it's the French Best Foreign Oscar entry, and the little chorus is likely to perform "Vois sur ton chemin" on Awards night (if their voices haven't changed). The relatively minimal mise-en-scène and the period setting link it more with its classic film antecedents than with the overproduced Very Long Engagement (Jeunet's film's Oscar nominations are for décor and photography). Derivative and conventionally themed? Yes. Barratier has acknowledged The Chorus's inspiration in an earlier film, La Cage aux Rossignols (The Nightingales' Cage, 1945), which has the same premise -- and anyone can name a long list of movies about teachers who charm their wayward flock. None of them feels -- or sounds -- quite like this movie, though. And the boys do their own singing: the "tête d'ange" really has the "voix d'ange." American reviewers, missing the nuances, plug Les Choristes into "Mr. Holland's Opus" or "Dead Poets Society" and find it stereotypically schmaltzy. The gentler French critics don't see those crude comparisons and are able to call it "un beau film" and find in it a satisfying example of "cinéma populaire." We can too if we open up to it.

©2005 Chris Knipp
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