U.S. Release Date:
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Gérard Jugnot, François Berléand, Jean-Baptiste Maunier, Jacques Perrin, Kad Merad, Marie Bunel, Philippe Du Janerand, Jean-Paul Bonnaire, Maxence Perrin, Grégory Gatignol
Christophe Barratier, Philippe Lopes-Curval
Dominque Gentil, Carol Varini
English subtitled French
The Chorus is one of those feel-good stories that Miramax Films has become expert in importing. This one is the French equivalent of Mr. Holland's Opus - the inspiring story of how a teacher comes to change the lives of his headstrong students. A popular theme not always done with music (think Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, and The Emperor's Club, to name a few recent examples), this kind of movie often treads a dangerous line between effective drama and overblown melodrama. Fortunately for viewers of The Chorus, it mostly hits the right notes. Either that, or the fact that it's in French dulls the manipulation.
If you have seen any movie remotely like this one, you already know the story. There are no surprises, and few variations. Nevertheless, the acting is top-notch and the director (first-timer Christophe Barratier) succeeds in getting us to care about the characters and their circumstances - a key for a formulaic story like The Chorus to work. I liken this sort of movie to a romantic comedy. The plot is set in stone from the beginning, but, even though we know the starting point, ending point, and most of the milestones along the way, is the journey enjoyable? For The Chorus, I would argue that the answer is "yes."
The tale is told in flashback for no apparent reason other than to vary the storytelling approach. The present-day bookends neither enhance nor detract from the narrative thrust. The majority of the movie transpires in 1949 at the Fond de l’Étang boarding school - a place where "difficult" boys are sent to become men. Into this undesirable situation comes Clement Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot), an unassuming man who has been hired to become the school's new supervisor. He is immediately caught between the proverbial rock and hard spot. The kids are rowdy and undisciplined and the headmaster, M. Rachin (François Berléand), rules with a brutal, iron fist. Poor Clement is immediately on the bad sides of both the boys and his ruthless boss. Gradually, however, he begins to win the kids' trust - primarily by not reporting them to the headmaster when they commit an infraction, but designing his own (less severe) punishment. Eventually, believing music to be an excellent outlet for their energies, he organizes a chorus, and takes special interest in two of his students. One is Pierre Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier), a troublemaker with the voice of an angel. Another is tiny Pepinot (Maxence Perrin), an orphan who desperately wants to belong.
Yes, it's pretty easy to see Robin Williams in this role. The Chorus is heartfelt, but not to the degree that it becomes cloying. For a film like this, that's a difficult line to walk. Most movies of this sort ratchet up the melodrama to the point where it becomes difficult to swallow the saccharine being forced down the viewer's throat. Skillful directors - and Barratier is clearly one - find a way to get us to feel for the characters and believe in their situations without choking us. We recognize that Pierre and Pepinot's stories will have closure. (In both cases, we have a sense of what that closure is, since they are featured as old men in the bookends.) We know that the students will eventually revere Clement, and give him the equivalent of Dead Poets Society's "Captain, My Captain." And we understand that the evil M. Rachin will get his comeuppance, but only after clashing with Clement. These are staples of the genre, yet knowing they will occur doesn't diminish the film's effectiveness.
The Chorus was a huge box-office success in France. Because it will receive limited distribution in the United States, its financial gross will be less than astounding, but this is the kind of film that will be seen, if for no other reason because the story is familiar and well-liked. The French occasionally like to laud the superiority of their culture to that of America's, but, at least in this case, they are guilty of copying. Fortunately, there are some subjects that touch similar emotions on either side of the Atlantic, perhaps indicating that we aren't that different after all.