3 stars (out of 4)
Gerard Jugnot is a somewhat mousy-looking French star actor who looks frail as a reed but possesses the priceless gifts of screen vulnerability, empathy and emotional clarity. He has the ability, like Charlie Chaplin, to make viewers identify with a "little fellow," and he uses all his skills to moving effect in "The Chorus" ("Les Choristes"), where he plays a supremely ordinary-looking chap with extraordinary skill.
His role is Clement Mathieu, a failed musician and composer who takes a low-level teaching job in Fond de L'Etang, a school for abandoned or delinquent boys run by a brutal martinet headmaster, Rachin (Francois Berleand).
At Fond de L'Etang (literally translated Rock Bottom), Mathieu defies the odds, teaching the boys to sing and love music, especially one supremely gifted lad, Pierre Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier, doing his own singing), who grows up to be a world-famous conductor (played by "Chorus" producer Jacques Perrin). His memories are reawakened in flashback after a visit by an old schoolmate, Pepinot (Didier Flamand).
This shamelessly corny and sentimental movie, beautifully shot in the Chateau Ravel in provincial Puy-le-Dome with a lively cast of angelic-voiced boys and sterling character actors, was the top-grossing French movie last year (outperforming "The Lord of the Rings"). I'm not ashamed to say it touched me too. It will probably move a good many more Yanks as well.
Writer-director Christophe Barratier, in his feature debut, has taken a 1947 French picture, director Jean Dreville's "Cage of Nightingales"--well-remembered in France, little-known here--and turned it into the sort of robustly emotional movie about wayward children and kind or cruel teachers that can pack a wallop. It did in France, where "Chorus" actually rekindled enthusiasm for classical vocal music in schools, making boys choirs' fashionable again.
One can understand why the French loved it. Set in 1949, "The Chorus" is about music and education but also about France's recovery from the war and Nazi oppression--and from bullies and crooks such as Rachin, who thrived in the Vichy era and sometimes hung on afterwards, as well as vicious street hooligans like school troublemaker Mondain (Gregory Gatignol).
The nostalgia works powerfully. The designers and cinematographers evoke the era with lustrous detail, and Barrier shoots in an old-fashioned, elegant style that recalls the great popular American and French studio movies of the '40s; think of "Going My Way," for example, in which Bing Crosby, playing resourceful choirmaster Father O'Malley, taught his tough kids to sing "Swingin' on a Star."
The actors, old and young, really put across the charge and thrill of creating beauty in a sordid, repressive environment. In the midst of it all, Jugnot's Mathieu is a classic "unlikely hero," a meek-looking but inwardly courageous little man who, once he starts the chorus project, won't quit, even in the face of massive opposition. Chaplinesque in another way too, Mathieu falls in love with a beautiful woman, Pierre's mother, Violette (Marie Bunel), who seems beyond his grasp and, in this case, really is.
Watching, we're reminded of another sentimental foreign-language film about a young boy grown famous, remembering his mentor: Giuseppe Tornatore's Italian hit "Cinema Paradiso." The resemblance is heightened by the fact that Perrin also appeared in "Paradiso" as the boy grown up, playing a world-famous film director, just as here he plays a world-famous orchestra conductor.
By now, of course, Perrin is a world-famous producer whose career goes back to Costa-Gavras' "Z" and includes the stirring nature documentaries "Microcosmos" and "Winged Victory."
In ex-classical guitarist Barratier, he has a writer-director who loves this material and fills it with vivifying warmth.
The emotional power of "The Chorus" may surprise some audiences who, taking their cues from TV cable news ranters, caricature the French as frosty snobs. "The Chorus" disproves that cliché while reawakening a time when life and movies seemed simpler and making that simplicity a virtue.
Most of all, it lets young Maunier sing and Jugnot act. Corny it may be, but "The Chorus" does connect. Like all good popular entertainments, the best of it sings.
Directed by Christophe Barratier; written by Barratier, Philippe Lopes-Curval, inspired by the screenplay of "La Cage aux Rossignols," written by Noel-Noel, Rene Wheeler, Georges Chaperot; photographed by Carlo Varini, Dominique Gentil; edited by Yves Deschamps; production designed by Francois Chauvaud; music by Bruno Coulais, with selections by J. P. Rameau; produced by Jacques Perrin, Arthur Cohn, Nicolas Mauvernay. In French, with English subtitles. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:36. No MPAA rating; family, with parental discretion advised (for language).
Clement Mathieu - Gerard Jugnot
Rachin - Francois Berleand
Chabert - Kad Merad
Pierre Morhange, as child - Jean-Baptiste Maunier
Pierre Morhange, as adult - Jacques Perrin
Violette Morhange - Marie Bunel
Father Maxence - Jean-Paul Bonnaire
Pepinot, as child - Maxence Perrin
Pepinot, as adult - Didier Flamand