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CHORISTES, LES (THE CHORUS) (director/writer: Christophe Barratier; screenwriters: Philippe Lopes-Curval/based on the movie “La Cage aux Rossignols-1945,” written by Georges Chaperot and René Wheeler; cinematographers: Carlo Varini/Dominique Genti; editor: Yves Deschamps; music: Bruno Coulais; cast: Gérard Jugnot (Clément Mathieu), François Berléand (Principal Rachin), Kad Merad (Chabert), Jacques Perrin (Pierre Morhange, as Adult), Jean-Baptiste Maunier (Pierre Morhange, as Child), Jean-Paul Bonnaire (Maxence), Marie Bunel (Violette Morhange), Carole Weiss (The Countess), Cyril Bernicot (Le Querrec), Thomas Blumenthal (Corbin), Maxence Perrin (Pépinot), Philippe Du Janerand (Monsieur Langlois); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Jacques Perrin/Arthur Cohn/Nicolas Mauvernay; Miramax Films; 2004-France-in French with English subtitles)
“Somehow with all the heartstrings pulled, I didn’t feel anything more than being manipulated.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Former producer and musician Christophe Barratier is the writer-director of the shamelessly conceived feel-good nostalgic Les Choristes, a weepie melodrama about success in a boarding school for troubled youngsters due to a schleppy music teacher’s love for his students and his good nature. It was inspired by the 1945 film La Cage aux Rossignols. It’s a highly manipulative film about stereotype teachers and students, where the popular new teacher feuds with the dreaded martinet principal over school policies and does anything to get the unruly kids on his side–including covering up for their misbehavior. Somehow with all the heartstrings pulled, I didn’t feel anything more than being manipulated. This safe foreign import was nominated for Best Foreign film in the Oscars.

The film begins with a flashback which gives away any doubt that this is anything but a success story. One of the reform school students is identified as Pierre Morhange (Jacques Perrin), who some 40 years later is visited by a fellow schoolmate after his beloved mom dies and we see that Pierre has become a world famous music conductor.

In 1949, somewhere in central France, failed musician Clément Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot) is hired as a music teacher at a repressive reform school for boys. It’s run with an iron-hand by the hateful principal, Rachin (François Berléand), who looks upon the students with contempt and thinks that both teachers or students come here only because they are failures and hopeless. Mathieu’s subversive job is to prove him wrong at every turn, and he does so by not willingly going along with the principal’s action-reaction policy of corporal punishment for every offense. Soon the uncontrollable and unreachable students are brought into line when the timid teach overlooks the students mocking him, their cruel pranks, and their calling him baldy. Instead he goes full-steam ahead to form a boys choir. This draws in one of the troublemaker ring leaders, Pierre Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier), who discovers he has a talent in music. After the redemptive power of music is established, which comes as no surprise, there’s a hint of a love story and perhaps some hanky-panky over illicit sex between teacher and students. But nothing materializes over either tale. The teach has a crush on Pierre’s pretty single mom Violette (Marie Bunel), and encourages her school visits, but she takes up with an engineer never knowing the teach had the hots for her. In any case, we now know that teach has a yearning for the ladies and not the boys. With those potential dramatics cleared up, that leaves the viewer to enjoy watching the fascist principal take it on the chin from the good-natured teacher as flexibility and goodness triumphs over rigidity and evil.

This kind of simplistic, timeworn, decent educational story doesn’t leave the viewer with much to think about, as everything is already carefully worked out to agree with the noble way adults see themselves as guardians for the young. In this sanitized project not one single thing was learned about the children, except the clichés drummed into us by the adults telling their story.

Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc Choir provided the good choir singing, the movies main virtue.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”