Christophe Barratier’s Les Choristes demonstrates that French directors can challenge America’s best in the saccharine stakes. This story of a failed composer, Clermont Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot), who washes up at a school for difficult boys and starts a choir threads sunny whimsy with a minor chord of melancholy. Change a few details — the teacher’s passion, the location — and it could be Goodbye, Mr. Chips, To Sir With Love, Dead Poets Society, Beautiful Minds or Mr. Holland’s Opus.
In generic tradition, Mathieu, an unlikely rebel whose idiosyncrasies the screenwriters never explore, subverts the headmaster’s authority by protecting students from the consequences of their bad behavior, and discovers a musical prodigy in the most recalcitrant of the boys, Pierre Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier). Although the arrival of an unrepentant reformatory school transfer and a doomed infatuation briefly threaten Mathieu’s choir, these obstacles are so cursory that it’s impossible to take them seriously. They simply vanish under the weight of Barratier’s emotional juggernaut, the blinding belief that those who have lost hope for themselves can still engender it in others.
That belief has animated some extraordinary films, such as Central Station and The Full Monty. But Les Choristes‘ failure to explore anything darker than romanticized longings (for love, fame, one’s mother) mean that Barratier’s characters have more than a hint of Disney Teflon about them. From very early in the movie, the threat of failure at Fond de L’Etang, even for the disappointed Mathieu, seems more an inconvenience than a fatal misstep. Although children might find this reassuring, the absence of dramatic tension leaves adults to look elsewhere for pleasures in this movie.
The setting, lighting, and camerawork create much of the nuance ignored by plot or character development. When Mathieu arrives at the rural school, France is still recovering from World War II. A washed-out palette of creams, grays, blues, and browns conveys the austerity of the period, and cool lighting emphasizes the parsimony of the operation Mathieu has joined. The aging caretaker Maxence (Jean-Paul Bonnaire) is also the school nurse, boys who transgress are condemned to clean the grounds, and the headmaster Rachin (Francois Berléand) relishes the power he exerts over pupils and staff who know they have reached the end of the line.
Barratier uses close-ups so sparingly that he rarely abstracts Mathieu (whom the students christen “Chrome Dome”) or other characters from this setting. In a sense, where they are becomes part of who they are, whether that identity conveys melancholy or raises the comic quotient. The empty walls and gray light in a classroom behind Mathieu as he mimes the answer to a quiz question show more of the teacher’s irresistible hopefulness than any of his carefully scripted late-night voice-over musings do. But no matter how many times Barratier lets his actors and mise en scene communicate visually (and the excellent cast capitalizes on each opportunity), they cannot rescue this mundane storyline.
The charitable might call this slender fable about the redemptive power of music a charming children’s film. The skeptical might discern just one more movie that celebrates the individual who helps the weak, yet never challenges the structures that guarantee the dominance of the strong in the first place. It’s a dead end for art, and the society on which it comments. This reviewer couldn’t help longing for the arrival of Malcolm McDowell and the brace of machine guns from If to remind viewers that individual self-satisfaction is no substitute for public action, or original filmmaking.