The Chorus

written by Christophe Barratier and Philippe Lopes-Curval

directed by Christophe Barratier

starring Gerard Jugnot, Francois Berleand, and Jean-Baptiste Maunier


review by Stephen Notley

The Chorus is a simple film, a teacher-helps-kids story of the sort we've seen many times before in movies like Dead Poets Society, Mr Holland's Opus, Stand and Deliver, School of Rock, Coach Carter and about a million others. It's easy to see why so many filmmakers tell this story; it's dramatic, it's got lots of emotional give and take, and there are plenty of opportunites for euphoric feel-good moments. The down side is that, having seen this story so many times already, it's easy for those moments to come off as predictable or cliched. And yet The Chorus is fresh, distinct, set apart from the other films of its genre by its lack of sentimentality, shifting most of its emotion onto the music, the heart of the film.

Clement Mathieu (played with dough-faced perfection by Gerard Jugnot) is a balding, 40ish failed musician taking a new job as supervisor at Fond L'Etang boys school --"Rock Bottom"-- full of scruffy war orphans and troublemakers, dominated by the small-minded zero-tolerance administration of its principal, Rachin. Incrementally, behind Rachin's back, Mathieu starts treating the boys with respect, not taking their shit but meeting them halfway, offering reward as well as punishment. Gradually they begin to respond, and soon Mathieu notices one of them singing and ropes them all together to perform some choral music he's written.

And the music is beautiful. The thrill of the boys' singing is so elemental the story doesn't even need to explain why they respond to it. After a lifetime of scorn and derision at Fond L'Etang, the opportunity to join with their fellows to make something indisputably wonderful is irresistible. The movie exists to let them sing and they do, harmonizing, soaring, soloing, carrying the film along on the most basic level, whetting and then satisfying the audience's appetite for glorious choralizing.

Visually the film is simple and unadorned, the cracked and aging walls of Fond L'Etang dusted with grey light and a few fluttering autumnal leaves. There's a curious lack of histrionics in how the story plays out, a reserve, no weeping emotional teacher-student breakdowns or Dead Poets Society-style suicides. The choral situation evolves easily, simply. The film is much like Mathieu himself, strict but patient, calm and soft-spoken, focused on the music. Through it, Mathieu is able to inspire some of the boys, particularly angel-faced troublemaker Morhange, who discovers for the first time in his soloing something that matters to him, while other kids Mathieu can't reach, like Mondain, a baritone bully who'd just rather keep being a jerk until he goes to jail. But for the most part the characterization is spare and simple, choral rather than ensemble, most of the boys there as singers rather than actors.

The Chorus is circumspect in its theme, not given to great dramatic statements or stirring victories. What it has to say, it says with the music. But the music says it all.