When did we first encounter a feel-good film that united delinquent kids, a devoted (if professionally frustrated) teacher, and the transformative power of music? Was it Julie Andrews? Could it have been the spirited, soft-hearted Maria and her Austrian brood, trilling their way up the hills above the abbey? Whether or not it was first, The Sound of Music certainly cinched the knot, wrapping up the musical-uplift genre with a definitive sprig of edelweiss. So for all its commercial and artistic success (it’s a lovely movie — you won’t hear a word to the contrary), why didn’t it succeed in finishing off this plot? Why are there still pretenders, lo these many years later? Weren’t the twin schmaltzfests of Mr. Holland’s Opus and Music of the Heart enough?
Not, apparently, for the French. For here comes Les Choristes (The Choir), a syrupy, hackneyed film that offers essentially zero by way of news. Yes, its heart is in the right place (with the kids!), and one had hopes for its success, but those hopes were quickly dashed on a slurry of stock characters and utterly predictable plot turns. In fairness to director Christophe Barratier and his co-writer, Philippe Lopes-Curval, the temptations of the music-as-savior story are legion: easy-bake conflict, a vehicle for an inspiring score, and unabashed sentiment. But couldn’t the filmmakers have added even a single new element? (It can be done, after all: Richard Linklater’s School of Rock took a teacher who needed reforming and leveraged his loosening influence to jump-start the spirits of a bunch of overachieving kids.)
It’s 1949, and we’re at a boarding school for wayward boys, at least a few of whom have been orphaned by the war. The campus is a dungeon, and Principal Rachin (François Berléand) its brutal master. Lockups are de rigueur, as is the constant and unsuccessful bark for “Silence!” (In French, it has a satisfying zing.) At this school, the golden rule is “action-reaction” — not a Newtonian law of thermodynamics, but a militaristic attempt to respond to any incident of miscreant behavior with immediate and severe punishment. Snooze. Ten minutes have passed, and you know exactly what’s going to happen.
Enter Mr. Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot), a kindly teacher brought in to replace a man slashed by scissors. On Day One, Mathieu’s work is (as it were) cut out for him, as he confronts a class of marauding children, yelling and pummeling, determined to undermine him. How does he win them over? First with a little lenience (taking his cue from Maria, who doesn’t tell the captain about the frog in her pocket or the pinecone on her chair or Liesel’s postprandial trip to the gazebo to cavort with Rolf) and then, of course, with the music. In this case, it’s choral music, and Mathieu is a failed composer. He had given up on music, but “never say never” (he actually says this): Now he sees he must peel the bandages off of his personal wound and resurrect the music for the good of the boys.
The boys are, as they must be, a mixed bunch. Some are hardened to thugs (though we know they’re good inside); others are awkward and vulnerable; some are heartbreakingly sweet. (Well, if it all weren’t such a cliché, it might be heartbreaking.) Among this lot, there are two nuts to crack: Pierre (the gorgeous Jean-Baptiste Maunier), a shy prodigy whose angelic voice rises into the rafters and, thereafter, directly to God, and Mondain (Grégory Gatignol), a violent pervert who threatens real damage to the students and the school. Mathieu jousts with each, attempting to bring them into the chorus as a way of bringing them into line, and into joy. His success — and this, too, is par for the course — is nearly universal.
Once the conflict has been established and the initial plot twists revealed, the film basically gives up, abandoning rhythm and sense for the stock elements of the form. Principal Rachin transforms, though not as a real person would: It’s not that the character has actually had a change of heart but that the film needs him to, in order to display the requisite musical montage of happy improvement at the school. The climax occurs as an afterthought, with no emotional weight, and the tie-it-all-up ending offends in its ease. There’s no way that everything came out all right in the end — not at this school.
As Mathieu, Gérard Jugnot does a fine job. Stern but tender, firm but open, he plays a good man in a bad movie, never stooping to indicate that he’d have been far better served by a far better script. The other actors hold their own, but it’s for naught — the film’s banality does them in. It’s a shame, but there’s nothing here to recommend. Did nobody involved in this project notice that it was retreading a very deep groove?