25 August, 2005

munkey's-eye view: LES CHORISTES

Dead Poets Society x Sister Act + Au Revoir Les Enfants x To Sir With Love ≈ Les Choristes

Les Choristes - translated variously into English as 'The Choristers', 'The Choirboys', 'The Choir' and 'The Chorus' - is the extremely likeable feature debut for director Christophe Barratier. Famous as a producer on collaborations with Jacques Perrin such as Microcosmos and Le Peuple Migrateur ('Winged Migration' / 'Travelling Birds'), Barratier has crafted a delightful feel-good drama which achieved worldwide success and was nominated for 2 Oscars in 2005, including Best Foreign Language Film.

The plot revolves around Clément Mathieu, a failed musician-turned-teacher who defies his headmaster's strict (and largely unsuccessful) regime of punishment-based education, at a school for problem boys in 1949. Conveniently discovering a way to get through to the abusive and occasionally violent students, as well as finding an outlet for his abandonned musical talent, Mathieu assembles a chorus. And of course, before long he has his students singing - and behaving - like angels.

It's fair to admit that the material here is nothing particularly original. The new teacher who wins the hearts of his hardened students by bucking the traditional system, is a long-held movie plot staple. And as always in this kind of film, there is a reasonable level of disbelief to be suspended; it pays not to ponder just how there happen to be thirty professional-quality singers among a home for wayward boys. However, the charm and genuine warmth of Les Choristes renders these limitations largely irrelevant, as the film effortlessly engages the audience in its gently uplifting narrative.

Playing M.Mathieu as well as serving as producer, Gérard Jugnot mortgaged his Paris apartment in order to finance Les Choristes. The gamble payed-off however, when the film became the highest grossing French movie of the year, and made the little-known Jugnot the highest-paid French actor of 2004. He delivers a charismatic performance, never falling into over-emotional schmaltz, but always maintaining a believable empathy and quiet sense of humour. His young co-stars are a seriers of first-timers who - though mostly cast for their singing ability rather than acting talent - consistently portray strong and believable characters.

The all-important music for the film is composed by Bruno Coulais, a long-time collaborator with Barratier and Perrin. As evidenced on his beautiful score for Le Peuple Migrateur, Coulais is a master of choral arrangements, in particular for boy sopranos. He makes full use of these talents here, creating several stunning pieces for Mathieu's increasingly-accomplished choir. Particularly remarkable are the soprano solos, performed with spine-tingling beauty by newcomer Jean-Baptiste Maunier, who plays Pierre - a particularly troubled student who discovers his own confidence through his performances with the choir.

The film is hampered by a few minor screenplay problems - for example characters who seem to be established as important but are then forgotten, a somewhat over-the-top portrayal of the cruel and hypocritical Headmaster, and largely unnecessary book-ending sequences showing Pierre as an ageing man. However these are minor blemishes in a well-executed film; it moves at an entertaining pace, never becomes bogged in earnest self-importnace, and offers plenty of likeable characters, moments of humour and believable relationships. Les Choristes is a highly enjoyable movie, capable of filling the heart with music and putting a smile on even the sourest of faces.

(out of 5)

L to R: M.Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot) tames his rowdy charges by allowing their hearts to sing; the angelic Pierre (Jean-Baptiste Maunier, third from left) reluctantly takes the limelight.




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