The Chorus Review
The central idea of Les Choristes is a familiar one – the inspirational schoolteacher who changes the lives of his students who are on a road to nowhere is tackled with a number of minor variations from Goodbye Mr Chips (1939) to The Browning Version (1951), Dead Poets Society (1989) and Dangerous Minds (1995). Most obviously the connection with music to inspire and develop is covered in Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995). The danger is that all too often this type of material slips into comfortable homilies and maudlin sentiment. The Chorus, a debut film from Christophe Barratier, doesn’t entirely avoid these traps, but the film’s modest ambition and simple pleasures made it unexpectedly the biggest grossing film in France in 2004.
On a visit home to bury his mother, a famous conductor meets a friend from his childhood. With a document they have uncovered, they reminisce on their days at a boarding school, the ‘Bord De L’Etang’ and the arrival in 1949 of a new supervisor Clément Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot). The ‘Bord De L’Etang’ is a school for difficult children, most of them orphans from the World War II and Mathieu arrives to find it overrun with out of control children whose pranks are not so harmless. The quid pro quo discipline of the headmaster Rachin (François Berléand), doesn’t exactly encourage a responsible attitude in the children, but Mathieu has other methods to reach them. Picking up on the boys’ habit of singing bawdy songs about the teachers, he directs them towards at least singing in tune and gradually towards singing some compositions he has written for them. The choir has no great talent, but it gives the boys something to direct their energies into, and teaches them a bit of discipline and organisation. Then Mathieu hears the voice of an angel – but the boy with the golden voice, Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier), is also one of the most unruly students and presents a real challenge for the supervisor of the choir.
Set in an undisciplined and unruly boarding school in the 1940’s, The Chorus borrows heavily from Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933), which, if you are looking for inspiration for a classroom drama (and as I’ve noted there are plenty to look to) Jean Vigo’s film isn’t a bad one to reference. But The Chorus is not only heavily indebted to Vigo’s once banned film, it’s a little liberal in its almost direct appropriations, and its whole look and feel. There was never any danger of Christophe Barratier’s sweet film ever getting banned though as it moves beyond the subversive anarchy of Vigo’s film and into rather more wholesome material as before long the little devils at ‘Bord De L’Etang’ are improbably transformed into a heavenly choir of golden cherubs.
Surprisingly however, The Chorus doesn’t go overboard with the sentiment and remains modest in the achievements of its inspirational mentor. Sure, it relies heavily on the charm of little orphan lads and the gorgeous choral arrangements they produce, but it keeps it within the poverty of the location and setting and doesn’t attempt to make it a world-changing event. The wild card element of another unruly student, Mondain (Grégory Gatignol), a student who is a harder nut to crack and a victim of himself as much as the system, that keeps the film grounded, although admittedly strictly in a non-realist, cinematically conventional format. And as far as cinema convention goes, The Chorus certainly knows exactly which buttons to press, leaving even the most infrequent cinema goer with no doubt whatsoever about the intent of every calculated gesture, word and expression. Which is perhaps why the film was as successful as it was in France, providing comfortable and relatively unchallenging family friendly material and doing it very well indeed.
Pathé’s UK Region 2 edition of The Chorus is not as basic as the French Edition Simple, nor as feature packed as the 2-disc Edition Prestige or Edition Collector, but at least picks up the most essential extra feature, the very long and charming Making Of. What this UK edition really lacks, and which is available on all the French editions, is the DTS soundtrack that would really bring the film’s musical passages to life. Incidentally, none of the French editions contain English subtitles.
The picture quality is superb. The Chorus is an immaculately photographed film with high production values, beautifully lit with delicately muted tones and the anamorphic transfer of the 2.35:1 image bears this out wonderfully with sharpness and accuracy. There’s the merest hint of compression blocking in backgrounds and the finest halo of edge-enhancement if you really want to look that closely, but there’s no reason for most viewers to be overly concerned with these issues. I would have considered giving the transfer here top marks were it not for the unsightly fixed subtitles – large, half in the frame and half in the border below the 2.35:1 image. This is a very disappointing and completely unnecessary flaw in an otherwise almost perfect transfer.
If it doesn’t have the warmth of tone and full roundness of a DTS mix, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is nonetheless very impressive. It’s a little dull in the deeper bass tones, but otherwise resoundingly clear and strong – essential in a film with such an emphasis on the musical and choral score. The soundtrack carries both dialogue and the music across extremely well, appropriately mixed across the speakers – mainly to the front, but with occasional use of surrounds. This could sound so much better though, and it’s disappointing that the DTS mix included on the French releases is not included here.
The English subtitles are, as I’ve stated, fixed on the transfer and cannot be removed. They appear both within the frame of the 2.35:1 film and below in the black bar at the bottom. They are also on the large side. They translate the film effectively, but this is a poor way to subtitle a film, marring an otherwise very fine transfer.
Theatrical Trailer (1:28)
Presented in a pan and scanned 1.85:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, the trailer plays up the cute kids up to pranks aspect of the film and is certainly effective in targeting a family audience.
Making of (1:12:22)
The Making Of shows the young lads to be genuinely likeable by interviewing them extensively throughout the filmmaking process. Despite its inordinate length (at 72 minutes it’s almost as long as the film itself), it’s nevertheless thoroughly entertaining and presents a refreshingly different perspective on making a film. By focussing on the children throughout, the documentary builds up to an almost Être et Avoir feel.
Yes it’s sweet and syrupy and far from realistic, but there’s a place for this kind of film. Unfortunately, judging by the less than positive response when the film was released in the UK and USA, that place would seem to be France, where Les Choristes broke all box office records. It would be a pity if the film vanished in the UK, because it’s certainly more modest in its ambition and sincere in its charm than the other French blockbuster of the year, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement, holding the same traditional qualities of good filmmaking and storytelling that can be found during the mid-80’s in Claude Berri’s Manon des Sources and Jean de Florette, or Yves Robert’s adaptations of Marcel Pagnol’s La Gloire de Mon Père and Le Château de Ma Mère and like those, I think Les Choristes is likely to be a film of enduring popularity. The film’s failure to replicate its huge French success however has probably made a 2-disc edition unfeasible (not that Pathé are ever that generous in their UK editions). The decision therefore to include the long Making Of over a DTS soundtrack can’t have been an easy choice to make as both would enhance and give value to the film considerably in different ways, but on balance it’s probably a good decision, since the audio and visual quality is still superb and the DVD’s presentation is only let down by Pathé’s customary unsightly fixed subtitles.