In postwar France of 1949, teacher Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot) is sent to a rural boys boarding school, where most of the pupils are orphans or illegitimate or abandoned - and harshly treated by headmaster Rachin (Francois Berleand). It is funded by wealthy benefactors who imagine it as a haven, but is in fact run with punishment as the natural order of things. Mathieu brings with him an altogether different approach, and he gradually wins the trust of the rowdy boys, finally setting up a choir which his sublimated musical skills turn into a fine group. Rachin claims the credit, but Mathieu wins the hearts. Among the boys is one especially gifted natural musician, Morhange (Jean Baptiste Maunier), and Mathieu urges his single mother, Violette (Marie Bunel) to send him to music school.
Review by Louise Keller:
The language of music needs no translation, and in Les Choristes, an uplifting film about unsung heroes, a failed music teacher uses singing to reach his unruly students. This is a truly delightful film about a teacher who inspires his students, and in turn about the students who inspire him. Played out like a beautiful symphony, the story symbolically begins before a concert, in which the central character is about to conduct a magnificent orchestra. But most of the story is set in the year 1949, when a short, balding man carrying a suitcase and some sheets of music of his own compositions in a brown satchel, arrives at the gates of a correctional boarding school in Auvergne.
Producer of Microcosmos, Himalaya, Travelling Birds, and now first time writer director Christopher Barratier, who also penned a couple of the songs, has orchestrated the story with such grace and simplicity, and aims directly for our most powerful instrument - the heart. Like the prisoners of war in Paradise Road who raised their spirits with song, the troubled youngsters at the school called - appropriately enough - 'Fond de L'étang' (bottom of the pond) discover the path to their dreams when their teacher forms a choir and teaches them to sing.
He was unforgettable as the unlikely hero in Monsieur Batignole, and here, Gérard Jugnot is magnificent as Clément Mathieu, the unassuming man whose lack of cynicism and wish to nurture rather than discipline is his greatest asset. Teaching the boys to sing was never his plan, but when they steal his music and he hears them singing derogatory ditties about him behind his back, the idea suddenly comes to him. Countering the cruelty of François Berléand's monstrous headmaster Rachin, Mathieu becomes the boys' champion, and begins to protect them. We meet the adorable Pépinot, played as a child by the pixie-faced Maxence Perrin, who waits every Saturday at the school gates, in the hope his father will come to collect him. But he waits in vain; his parents have been killed in the war and no-one has told him. And there's Jean-Baptiste Maunier's Pierre Morhange, who has not only the name and face of an angel, but also the voice.
The transformation of the boys from misfits to youngsters with a purpose is a gradual one, and we are there for the whole journey. Much of the joy of Les Choristes lies in the relationship Mathieu develops with the boys and in particular with Morhange, whose natural talent jumps out at him. Mathieu is also besotted by the youngster's beautiful mother, but she is oblivious to his feelings. Never is there a lonelier moment than the one in the outdoor café, when she confides she has met someone else. She walks away from the table carrying her flowers, leaving Mathieu alone with only two glasses for company.
Musically there is much to enjoy - from the time the boys beat their hands on their desk in time with the rhythm of the metronome, to the intricate harmonies they perform for the Countess. I was profoundly moved by Les Choristes, a haunting and involving tale that reminds us what an indelible mark one single person can make on the lives of so many.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Sensitively directed and beautifully made, Les Choristes is a touching tale of abandoned children badly treated, rescued - or at least spiritually rescued - by the generosity of spirit that marks a real teacher in Clément Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot). Never manipulative and essentially an ode to a teacher who influenced young lives for the better, the film takes a simple story and builds layers of nuance into it for maximum dramatic satisfaction.
The two central characters - Mathieu and Rachin - symbolise the contrasting educational styles; one is driven by discipline and fear, the other by discovery and care. Two outstanding actors create their characters with great care, and a touch of pathos. Likewise, the three central boys are exceptional; little Pépinot (Maxence Perrin) is an orphan and his plaintive face will break your heart as he waits by the school's gate each Saturday for his father - who will never come. It is Pépinot (Didier Flamand) 50 years later who brings the grown up Morhange (Jacques Perrin) Mathieu's memoirs, in which the story is told, triggering the flashback structure of the film.
The memoirs provide a narrative link for the story, and the images that spring from it are evocative and haunting. There is a great sense of rural France in the late 40s, and some of the beautiful scenes are a strong contrast to the sometimes ugly scenes within the walls of the school.
Mathieu's development of the choir from the raw materials is both entertaining and credible, and the songs Mathieu writes for his boys are often touched with an ethereal grace. Les Choristes is a film to give us hope that compassion is a natural part of the human condition and consequently uplifting.
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CHORISTES, LES (M)
CAST: Gérard Jugnot, François Berléand, Jean-Baptiste Maunier, Jacques Perrin, Kad Merad, Marie Bunel, Philippe Du Janerand, Jean-Paul Bonnaire, Maxence Perrin, Didier Flamand
PRODUCER: Arthur Cohn, Nicolas Mauverna, Jacques Perrin
DIRECTOR: Christophe Barratier
SCRIPT: Christophe Barratier, Philippe Lopes-Curval
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Dominique Gentil, Carlo Varini
EDITOR: Yves Deschamps
MUSIC: Christophe Barratier, Bruno Coulais
PRODUCTION DESIGN: François Chauvaud
RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: BVI
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: January 20, 2005
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: BVHE
VIDEO RELEASE: August 17, 2005