Near the end of “The Chorus” (“Les Choristes”), the protagonist, a would-be composer who teaches at a school for troubled boys, declares in hindsight that he “felt a surge of joy and optimism” over his story’s finale. I can relate to him. As a viewer, I felt the same way. This is a movie fraught with clichés, yet also so full of beautiful music and innocent merriness that its more mawkish attributes are overlooked.
Though it is based specifically on 1945’s “La Cage aux Rossignols” (“A Cage of Nightingales”), modern viewers will recognize it as similar to “Mr. Holland’s Opus” — “L’Opus du Monsieur Holland” is what I like to call it in my illiterate French. There are strains of countless other films, too, though; even in 1945, “La Cage aux Rossignols” wasn’t exactly groundbreaking with its story of a teacher who uses music to reach his rebellious students.
What “The Chorus” excels at is earnestness, wearing its plain heart on its sleeve while it tugs at ours. I always say that all movies are manipulative in that they seek to make us feel something; what separates the good ones from the bad ones is whether we notice (or mind) that we’re being manipulated. In “The Chorus,” I know it’s happening, but it doesn’t bother me. Manipules-moi, I say, this time having looked up the French word before I used it.
Written by Christophe Barratier and Philippe Lopes-Curval and directed by Barratier, it’s set in 1949 at Fond de l’Etang — “bottom of the pond,” literally — a school for wayward boys. Some are orphans, some are from broken homes, some are merely unfocused. There are no true delinquents on hand among these 8-to-14-year-olds, a fact made clear when a real one is shipped in and obviously doesn’t belong there. They are simply energetic, mischievous lads who need a little guidance.
They do not get it from the overly strict principal, Rachin (François Berleand), who rules with an iron fist and is prone to putting misbehaving students in solitary confinement as a means of detention. His philosophy is “action-reaction”: You act up, you get punished, swiftly and strongly.
The new instructor is Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot), a froggish, dowdy man who befriends the boys and reacts to their cursory taunts — calling him “baldy,” taking his satchel, and so forth — with good-natured amusement, even retaliating with his own jests. When one of them has put a lit cigarette in the mouth of the science skeleton, Mathieu says, “No smoking in class,” plucking the butt from the skeleton’s mouth and adding, “That includes you.”
Unbeknownst to all, Mathieu is a closet composer, writing oratorios and choir pieces in his spare time. On a whim, he organizes the boys into a little chorale, teaching them some of his own pieces in addition to whatever else it is he teaches during class time. (His specific area of expertise is not made clear, though we know he’s not the math teacher, because we meet that guy.)
I do not need to tell you the rest. One especially problematic boy, Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier) turns out to have a naturally beautiful singing voice; Rachin is unsupportive of the choir but eventually lightens up; music changes everyone’s lives and saves the day.
There are some movies about boarding schools where children are molested or otherwise abused by adults, or where other forms of tragedy are afoot. This is not one of those movies. This film is matched by its music (composed by director Barratier and Bruno Coulais): lovely, spring-like and inspiring. Mathieu’s relationship with Pepinot (Maxence Perrin), the youngest boy, who waits for his parents to come collect him even though he has been told they are dead, is particularly sweet.
And there may be a star in the making with Morhange, played and sung by Jean-Baptiste Maunier. Morhange is the son of an unwed mother, and Maunier’s large, expressive eyes and narrow face convey sadness beyond his years. I would not be surprised if this film came about because someone heard his voice and was moved to build a movie around it.
The film plays on people’s natural fondness for wide-eyed orphans and our tendency to revere teaching as a noble, selfless profession. It’s a light-hearted, sentimental revisiting of those themes, and it is a lovely one.
B+ (1 hr., 36 min.; French with subtitles; )