Les Choristes (The Chorus)

 One of the most popular films at the French box-office in many years, Les Choristes has received BAFTA and Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language film. It would be hard not to enjoy and applaud a story of a dedicated teacher who improves the quality of life for his problem students. But it is both sweeter and tougher than the usual rebel class/heroic teacher movie.

Director Christophe Barratier was a child musician himself and felt the need to express something in his film about his own life and disappointment at not being a musician. He is also paying tribute to music, especially choral music, and the beauty and clarity of young voices.

Barratier loosely bases his film on the 1945 French movie, The Cage of Nightingales, directed by Jacques Dreville and starring Noel Noel.

The story has been relocated to 1949 when the French government was trying to improve its understanding of children and their problems, introducing psychological profiling.

The film opens with a successful conductor working in America, who is called home on the death of his mother. After the funeral he meets up with an old friend who shows him the diary of the teacher who taught them how to sing.

He reads the diary and it comes to life. The school is one of those old French Dickensian institutions, run by a disappointed teacher who takes out his frustrations in biting language and cruel punishment of his boys (who are problem children, sons of single mothers, boys with criminal tendencies and war orphans). There are grim scenes in the refectory, the dormitory, the classroom. And most of the action takes place in winter.

Matthieu Clement (a middle-aged, balding, chubby failed musician, Gerard Jugnot) takes up a job as a supervisor at this school, trying to follow the rules of the principal, acting as a disciplinarian with the boys. However, he allows his natural kindness to emerge and discovers that many of the boys can sing. Gradually and happily, he forms the choir and builds it to concert pitch. The sweetness includes the music itself, the troubled boy who has an angelic voice and a little orphan for whom Matthieu becomes a father-figure.

The toughness (which led the British censor to give the film a 12A certificate where children under 12 can see the film only if they are accompanied by an adult) includes a few swear words, some boyish crudities and an allusion to the possibilities of sexual abuse - a touch of realism in a school where the boys were difficult and the treatment harsh.

The music is very attractive and the performances and plotlines finely tuned. Young Jean Baptiste Maunier has a wonderful screen presence and beautiful voice. This is a touching, intelligent and inspirational movie.

LONDON - 5 May 2005 - 450 words

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