Some of The Chorus (Les Choristes) is the familiar stuff of movies: Music soothes souls, one teacher can make a difference, simple men can be heroes, unreasonable tyrants get theirs, bad kids can really be good, etc. But this modest drama from composer, writer and first-time director Christophe Barratier, protégé of French vet actor/filmmaker Jacques Perrin, is so infused with nostalgia, optimism and authenticity, it will prove irresistible to the older art-house demographic.
With no edge, little originality, and a reverence for traditional modes of storytelling, this lovely film is an old-fashioned foreign-film pleasure that will work just fine on its own familiar terms. Because of the administration-vs.-student antagonisms, The Chorus at moments pleasantly recalls such French favorites as Zero de Conduite, The Two of Us, and, because of its time setting, even the far-from-gentle Les Diaboliques.
The filmmakers embrace a surefire plot structure: Two former students at a boarding school for disadvantaged and troublesome boys-orchestra conductor Pierre Morhange (Perrin) and classmate Pépinot (Didier Flamand)-reunite some 50 years later as 60-somethings to share memories of their beloved teacher Clement Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot). Pépinot has brought Morhange the diary that triggers the reminiscing. This set-up sends The Chorus into a long flashback that tells their schoolboy story.
Mathieu emerges as a staunchly unassuming, exceedingly well-meaning and effective teacher rudely installed at the depressing school. Against all odds, he exacts change. Of course, Mathieu locks horns with the Dickensian villain of a headmaster, Rachin (François Berléand), whose draconian punishment of his mischievous wards telegraphs the satisfying fate he will meet.
The youngsters, eventually transformed by Mathieu into a fine boys choir, are a mix of orphans and drop-offs from reform schools and broken homes. The young Morhange and Pépinot give few signs of what will be their fate as adults: The angelic-looking Morhange does reveal a wonderful voice, but he is a troublemaker; Pépinot is preternaturally quiet. There's also Mondain (Grégory Gatignol), who provides one of the film's small surprises. He's the patently rebellious and pugnacious kid accused of thefts at the school but who emerges heroic.
As Mathieu, taunted as "Baldy" by the boys, finally tames his students and whips them into a fine chorus, even after rehearsals must be done clandestinely, the grim, cold school environment becomes a striking counterpoint to the warmth and beauty of the music filling it. The Chorus also has brushes with action and romance: A fire sweeps the school, endangering the students, and Mathieu engages in a sweet flirtation with Violette (Marie Bunel), Morhange's single mom, which may or may not turn into something. A final revelation in the flashback brings two of the characters together and not a few tears to the eyes.
Voice-over narration neatly ties The Chorus into a highly satisfying art-film package. The original music from Bruno Coulais and the voices of Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc enrich the film tremendously and appropriately.
This retro offering should play to discriminating audiences, provided Miramax raises its visibility and sparks the needed word of mouth.