Audiences love films about underdogs that overcome. One of the most beloved sub-genres in film history involves a seemingly controversial or unorthodox schoolteacher sparking the inspiration of students to rise above and achieve greatness. It's a familiar story that translates to nearly any era, setting, and subject. We've seen the effect of literature on a group of boys at a New England prep school in Dead Poets Society. Inner-city teens found confidence through calculus in Stand and Deliver. And then there's the transforming power of music, as shown in movies like Mr. Holland's Opus and Music of the Heart.
The French film Les Choristes (The Chorus) follows in this tradition and last year met with incredible success in its homeland, outperforming Harry Potter and other big budget film imports. Pretty impressive for the first feature film by director and composer Christophe Barratier, who adapted the screenplay from a little known 1945 film called The Cage of the Nightingales. The new movie's soundtrack features choral music by leading French composer Bruno Coulais and also became a surprise hit, contributing to an unexpected resurgence in classical youth choirs in France.
Les Choristes is set in post-World War II France, a time of social restructuring and economic recovery from German occupation. Not many movies have adequately dealt with what the French faced in the aftermath. Considering how many children were orphaned as a result, it's not surprising that the government instated correctional houses designed to discipline with military strictness—"Spare the rod, spoil the children."
One such school is L'Fond de L'Etang, which literally means "Rock Bottom," an old French castle that looks very much like a prison. When mild-mannered Clement Mathieu (popular French actor Gerard Jugnot) arrives to take a position as the new assistant teacher, he is immediately plunged into an educational system nightmare. His colleagues humorously introduce themselves by giving the names of the worst troublemakers. Headmaster Rachin (Francois Berleand) has the cold, hard demeanor of a warden, delivering swift punishment to anyone caught inciting trouble. And the boys behave as if discipline were an alien concept, pouring their efforts into driving the new teacher away for the next one in line to arrive.
However, Mathieu is not like other teachers (after all, who else would want this job?) and he sees great potential in the students. All they know is Rachin's disciplinary motto, "Action, reaction." But instead of resorting to similar violence, Mathieu demonstrates patience and love, using their taunts to teach. When he finds that the boys have some ability for singing through their schoolyard chants, he reawakens his abandoned passion for music and decides to begin a choir to promote unity and harmony.
Les Choristes is a film of great beauty and sweet intentions, offering a strong theme of grace vs. punishment—compassion of the heart in contrast to the hard discipline of the law. How one seemingly small act can transform so many lives, treating the kids like people instead of criminals. The film starts off well enough, appropriately building tension between Mathieu and both the children and the headmaster. Jugnot gives his role the necessary sweetness and believability, easily allowing the audience to want to see Mathieu succeed with his good intentions and gentler methods.
Unfortunately, the movie has a sloppy flow that relies too heavily on little clichés. This is a movie about transformed lives, yet the film cuts corners when it comes to the process of transformation. Mathieu decides to start a choir, and we see the first day of practice. From there, the choir's progress is generally detailed with Mathieu's occasional journal entries, and we're to believe that a group of boys go from complete inexperience to Vienna Boys Choir in a matter of two months, which for the film audience is a change from ragamuffins to star attractions in less than 30 minutes. Missing are scenes of Mathieu truly connecting with the kids, watching them light up with newfound musical passion.
On top of that, Rachin's cruel demeanor changes on a dime. First he's seen butting heads with Mathieu. Then as Mathieu journals the choir's success, we learn that Rachin is also experiencing joy as a result, and we see him mimicking the boys in his office by throwing paper airplanes from the top of his desk. Five minutes later, he irrationally blames the choir for one disciplinary matter. His actions and demeanor just don't quite add up, flip-flopping his position as the plot requires. By the end, it's clear he's in the movie to play the sneering moustached villain, not a convincing hard-case foil to the protagonist.
Midway through, the film introduces a remorseless bully named Mondain (Gregory Gatignol). While he does initially add tension to the story by thwarting Mathieu's plans, you have to wonder what purpose he serves other than to represent the potential of danger in the school. He does play a small part in the final outcome, but there's so much time spent on him for so little payoff, why bother? He's an excuse, but he's not pertinent.
Then there's Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier), singled out to Mathieu at the film's start as one of the school's biggest troublemakers. Wouldn't you know it that he's also the fairest and most gifted boy soprano of the bunch? The filmmakers are right in saying that this is an interesting contradiction, but it's also clichéd development in movies like these. We never really buy that he's really one of the most problematic, and his salvation isn't suspenseful since the film begins in the present day with Morhange revealed to be a famous classical conductor and musician.
Les Choristes is not a bad film and it has great potential, but too often it shortchanges itself from being a great one. It relies too much on surface value when there are so many rich opportunities for character development. Other than a real-life saint with a love for music, who is Mathieu? Why did he have to give up his musical dreams and take a teaching job? He shows favoritism to Morhange and a small orphan named Pepinot, so wouldn't the rest of the delinquents in the choir respond negatively to that? Movies like these require a certain degree of ensemble acting, but here we have an array of cute faces with just two or three barely developed characters interacting with Mathieu. And without giving away the ending, one has to wonder if the lives of the children are truly changed beyond the two that Mathieu shows favoritism to.
As for the music, it's beautifully sung by the Saint-Marc Petite Chanteurs. The child actors in the film do a fine job emulating the singing, and Maunier is a talented soloist. That said, this isn't the most amazing choral music you'll ever hear, relying on simple melodies and primarily singing in unison or two-part harmony. Also, will the music register as much with American audiences since the lyrics are not subtitled in English like the dialogue?
Les Choristes isn't quite as forced and syrupy as Mr. Holland's Opus or Music of the Heart, but it's not a classic like To Sir with Love or Goodbye, Mr. Chips either. The ethical theme of punishment and forgiveness, along with the flashback narrative and the boys school, remind me most of the similarly good-but-flawed The Emperor's Club with Kevin Kline. A slightly stronger and longer script could have easily remedied the weaknesses in this movie by adding thirty more minutes of character development and details to potentially elevate it above its hackneyed devices.
Of course, millions of satisfied French filmgoers can't be wrong. Les Choristes plays its audience like a violin. To some, that means being caught up in the emotions, sweetness, and touching message at the film's heart. Others, however, will simply leave the movie scratching their heads, feeling that they have indeed been played.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Compare and contrast the themes of grace and discipline in the movie. Is the film suggesting that the two are mutually exclusive, or is there room for both?
- Why do you suppose the boys are so willing to go from their delinquent ways to singing in a choir? Is there a similarity in the way we reject our sinful ways to do good in the name of Christ?
- Define success. Would you describe Mathieu as a successful failure or a failed success? Does Mathieu do what's necessary, does he follow his passion, or does he somehow accomplish both?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Les Choristes is rated PG-13 for some mild violence, most of it due to the harsh disciplinary actions of the school. It's also got some coarse language and sexual references on the part of the children, depicting their delinquent background. Though generally suitable for families, parents should heed the rating and bear in mind that their children also need to be able to read to enjoy the film.
Photos © Copyright Miramax Films
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 01/20/05
The directorial debut of Christophe Barratier, Les Choristes (The Chorus), to which he also contributed the screenplay and the original music, is a big hit in France. But critics are giving it a lukewarm reception here. The film follows the efforts of a struggling musician, Clement Mathieu, who accepts the formidable task of teaching music to troubled students in a correctional house for boys in the 1940s. Slowly but surely, he finds ways to employ music that will help the boys grow wiser and happier.
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Les Choristes plays its audience like a violin. To some, that means being caught up in the emotions, sweetness, and touching message at the film's heart. Others, however, will simply leave the movie scratching their heads, feeling that they have indeed been played." He offers this suggestion: "A slightly stronger and longer script could have easily remedied the weaknesses in this movie by adding thirty more minutes of character development and details to potentially elevate it above its hackneyed devices."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "If you felt the tears welling during such European period weepers as Cinema Paradiso and Life Is Beautiful, be prepared to bring out the Kleenex again for The Chorus (Les Choristes). This is a glossily sentimental and heart-tugging French film. Barratier's film about the healing power of music features first-rate performances, including the children who are superbly cast, and heavenly singing by the boys—once they get going—making this a surefire audience pleaser even as the setup is transparently manipulative."from Film Forum, 02/03/05
Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) writes, "We all long for that perfect combination of direction and acceptance from those in authority, which some call 'mentoring.' I believe it's a hunger for God which He gives us, so that we will seek out not only Him, but others who mirror these godly qualities. And so, it is no surprise that another film which deals with teachers and students, and the powerful relationship that they can have, has once again become a favorite. Even those who abhor subtitles will appreciate this film, which can open up interesting avenues of discussion about the role of the arts in education, our local communities and even our hearts."from Film Forum, 02/17/05
Artie Megibben (Film Forum) writes, "Isolation, loneliness and the resulting self-destructive 'acting out' are the themes of the film. But the main theme is that of redemption. The movie tells the story of a lonely world invaded by grace. Alienated children of failed parents are transformed by the transcendent power of heavenly music. Angelically voiced arias lift hard-boiled delinquents to something higher. By the end of the movie we are reminded of another page from the Scriptures. 'And you were by nature children of wrath … but God who is rich in mercy … has made us alive.'"
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