I read the other day that the French have discovered a taste for alcopops. Judging from Christophe Barratier’s dbut feature The Chorus (Les Choristes) their new found taste for sugar is not limited to sickly drinks.
The film has been a smash hit across the Channel, where it has been seen by more than eight million people since its release last March, and is reported to have spawned a revival in boys choirs. It is being hailed as the natural successor to the 2002 worldwide smash Amlie and is France’s contender for the best foreign language film Oscar.
It opens in the present day, when world class conductor Pierre Morhange (Jacques Perrin) opens the door to a stranger, Ppinot (Diddier Flamand), who has brought the conductor a gift: the diary of their teacher at the brutal reform school they attended 50 years earlier. The conductor begins to read the diary and we are transported back to the arrival at the school of the new teacher Clment Mathieu (Grard Jugnot) at the gates of Fond de L’Etang. Any doubts that this is a movie about redemption are immediately dismissed by M Mathieu’s translation of the school’s name. It means Rock Bottom.
What follows is a standard Hollywood tale of how inspired teacher Mathieu uses music to turnaround bad boys brutalised by a harsh regime ruled with a rod of iron by a psychopath straight out of central casting the principal Rachin (Franois Berland). Think The Cider House Rules, Dead Poets’ Society and, top of the form, Mr Holland’s Opus, but here the nostalgia is not in New England but the lush Lyonais countryside, though filmed in the same washed out sepia tones.
If in doubt that this film owes more to Hollywood than Paris, look no further than the stock characters: Ppinot, the cute little orphan at the gate; Boniface, the curly-headed swot with specs; Mondain, the abused and irredeemable bully; the teachers as much victims of the harsh regime as the pupils; and the beautiful and gifted rebel, Pierre Morhange, whose life will be transformed by M Mathieu and his music.
The whole is played out to a sumptuous soundtrack of orchestral and then choral music clearly designed to manipulate the feelings of the audience. Being a French film there is more style to the saccharine than in its Hollywood siblings. The director and producers have made much of the post-World War II setting and the ill-advised psychological profiling fashionable among educationalists at the time. But such aspirations towards depth never really work, and The Choir fails to rise far above its roots in Jean Drville’s 1949 melodrama La Cage Aux Rossignols (The Cage of Nightingales).
Judging by this first feature, Christophe Barratier is no Louis Malle. There is no need to be, according to eight million French men and women. But I cannot help hoping that French audiences will sicken of the saccharine and return to demanding movies with more seasoning than this Le Hollywood offering.