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The International Writers Magazine
: Film Review

The Chorus
Dir: Christophe Barratier
Gérard Jugnot -Clément Mathieu
François Berléand - Rachin
Kad Merad - Chabert
Jean-Paul Bonnaire - Old Maxence
Marie Bunel - Violette Morhange
Jacques Perrin- Adult Pierre Morhange
Jean-Baptiste Maunier - Pierre Morhange

Predictably the British Press have been very sniffy about the Chorus – a French film directed by Christophe Barratier and written by Christophe Barratier and Philippe Lopes-Curval . Possibly because it has been such a success in France (with over 9 million ticket sales) and the fact that it has been shown in every country in the world except the UK till now. This is the same press that begs for ‘feel good’ movies and laments the lack of audiences for yet another gangster movie from Richie or Vaughn, the lottery cash gang who dominate UK independent production.

Well here is a successful movie, made on a very tiny budget that also knows exactly how to please an audience. The Chorus er…has struck a chord with people because it is intensely human and at once sad and ultimately redeeming.
Telling the tale of a remote private boys school for orphans and wayward boys in the late 40’s there are a lot of damaged and traumatised kids in the wake of the war. The School is run by Rachin, a strict, unimaginative disciplinarian whose motto is Action = Reaction. If the kids do wrong the punishment is severe including jail and acting as housemaid scrubbing floors. The treatment of the kids is so severe, and the inadequacy of care and schooling is so bad, it is a recipe for disaster.

Enter Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot) a bald, meek and mild supervisor (teacher). Here is man who generally thinks the best of others and expects the same in return. On his arrival the old boy who looks after the infirmary is a victim of a prank and severely injured and this sets the tone for the school. Every day is punishment day and to be frank, staff and students are treated like criminals, living cheek by jowl in the dorms.

Mathieu hates the way the Head treats the kids and secretly plots to help the kids by teaching them to sing. It’s that simple. He, a humbled, failed musician and composer, writes music for them and each day he has to win them over, almost note by note to gain their trust.

In doing so he discovers that one boy has the voice of an angel (Jean-Baptiste Maunier playing Pierre Morhange) and it is a treat to hear him and the others sing once the choir takes shape. As they learn to sing the behaviour in the whole school improves, rebellion contained by this little moment of trust, and slowly the students begin to learn to be less self-destructive.

Of course the Head despises the new atmosphere and tries to hijack it all when it appears to be successful. But there is also a transformation taking place amongst the other staff who respond to the new atmosphere and enjoy hearing the music and see the kids so transformed. See how well he handles the bullies and nutures the defenceless. See in particular little Pepinot the orphan who refuses to accept he has no parents and who cannot sing.

Yes this is a nostalgic film – but speaking as one who spent almost all his formative years at boarding school – not dissimilar to this school but luckily run by an excellent headmaster, I could understand and sympathise with the kids desperate to be out of there, but offered little hope of reprieve. I can also recognise that it is absolutely true; one good teacher at the right time can make a huge difference.

The reason the film has resonated so well in France, and other places, is that we sense that no matter how awful the past was, it shaped us and somehow modern education is so impersonal, individuals who care are now risible characters, despised in an increasing numbers game.

Christophe Barratier knew what he was doing with this film. It is no accident that Jacques Perrin plays the older Pierre Morhange. He is reprising his role in Cinema Paradiso as the older version of the young boy who so loved cinema. Here again, he is the older version of himself, the boy who was rescued by a benign mentor when young.

Cinema Paradiso is still a beautiful, if sentimental film, and The Chorus taps into that same vein with style, whilst providing some good laughs along the way. The singing is beautiful and the CD has sold over a million. Gerard Jugnot is wonderful to watch as the supervisor and the boys are perfectly natural. The film feels credible and the sense of period is carefully recreated.
Never mind how improbable the ending, it will break your heart.
Go see it now, or rent the DVD and take a cynic with you, watch them cry.

© Sam North March 15th 2005
Sam North is the author of the historical novel Diamonds – The Rush of ‘72
Available now - Buy this book and help Hackwriters keep going

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