Les Choristes

(The Chorus, Christophe Barratier, France, 2004)


When French director Olivier Assayas made the cyberpunk Demonlover in 2002, he launched a broadside against those films by his countrymen that owed their popular success to a specious nostalgia for simple small-town life. The documentary To Be and To Have (2002) was Assayas’ pet hate, but the same point could apply to Les Choristes – and also, to broaden the critique to Francophone culture in general, Canada’s Seducing Doctor Lewis (2003).

Les Choristes is, in truth, a curious balancing act. Simple and sentimental it certainly is as it retells, in flashback, the touching Goodbye Mr Chips-style story of a dedicated music teacher, Clément (Gérard Jugnot), and his class of troublesome boys. But hovering around it, constantly, are the issues of the neglect, abuse and "policing" of children that arose in France in the aftermath of the Second World War.

In the main, however, it evokes a confection like The Trouble with Angels (1966) more than François Truffaut’s autobiography of juvenile delinquency, The 400 Blows (1959). Little realism is invested in the transformation of these ramshackle kids into note-perfect harmonists. Nonetheless, it is hard to resist the emotional pull of this lovely music once it takes over the film.

Les Choristes is a remake of Jean Dréville’s A Cage of Nightingales (1945), a movie little known beyond France, or even within it – writer-director Christophe Barratier, making his debut feature, confesses he was happy not to be labouring in the shadow of a beloved masterpiece.

The story is full of excellent character vignettes, such as the pent-up headmaster, Rachin (François Berléand). Colouring the entire tale is the sadness that surrounds Clément – a frustrated composer only able to temporarily express his creativity through the makeshift choir.

Insofar as Les Choristes touches on complex and occasionally disturbing social issues, it manages to make light of them while at the same time sounding a pleasingly moral note of social justice. The makers of Australia’s youth-on-the-loose pic Deck Dogz (2005) could have learnt a thing or two from it.

© Adrian Martin January 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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