It’s 1949 in France. The country is recovering from the Nazi nightmare, yet its survivors often imitate the worst attributes of the invader. Thousands of children are orphaned or raised in fatherless homes. The careers of many adults are irretrievably interrupted, the hopes of an entire generation dashed forever.
Fond de L’Etang (literally translated as the “bottom of the scum”) is a reformatory for “bad” boys, the last stop for boys with “behavior problems,” including such incurable cases as an 8-year-old who continues to fantasize that his dead parents are coming for him (Maxence Perrin, son of famous French actor Jacques Perrin, who also appears in the film). Shot in the fortress section of the Chateau de Ravel in Puy-de-Dome, the school indeed has the hopeless look of an inescapable prison.
Rachin (Francois Berland) is the frustrated headmaster who metes out punishment where none is needed and suffocates the children’s natural high spirits. The slightest hiccup against authority is stamped out with vicious cruelty. If the boys aren’t psychologically warped before they arrive, they certainly are by the time they graduate.
Into this cold, colorless world comes the new prefect, the kindly, bald and unassuming Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot, who, despite being a beloved French comic, is unknown to most Americans). He’s horrified by Rachine’s teaching methods, but he also quickly finds out that the boys have learned a thing or two about nastiness themselves. It’s a thankless, lonely situation for “Chrome Dome,” as the boys have dubbed him. Then one day Mathieu decides to form the boys into a choir. One by one, the boys “audition,” singing snippets of songs so the new choirmaster can determine their vocal range. This hilarious and endearing sequence is a brilliant microcosm of attitudes in postwar France.
One boy stands out from the others. Pierre Morhange is a sullen troublemaker with the voice of an angel (played by Jean-Baptist Manier, in real life, a singer in the Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc, the famous boys choir that provides the choral music in the film). The boy’s mother, Violette (Marie Brunel), is a pretty widow who’s at a loss trying to raise her boy without a father. Mathieu urges her to send Pierre to a music conservatory, where he promises he will use his old connections to get the boy a scholarship. Mathieu falls painfully in love with Violette, but she’s been won by a rich, younger man.
To avoid Rachin’s displeasure, Mathieu must train the boys in secret, so they practice after school in the castle dungeon, their voices reverberating like a heavenly choir against the old stone walls. His passion for music revived by the boys, Mathieu feverishly composes music for them, soaring to new heights of creativity.
Unlike similar American films about the good teacher who fights the system to help his students, there’s no nail-biting competition in the final scenes. In The Chorus, the process of creating the choir (the building of the team in postwar France, if you will) is the triumph of the story. There is no public moment of glory, only a small private concert given for the countess, a local benefactress of the reformatory.
When the headmaster goes off to get a medal for his “progressive” techniques, one of the boys he unjustly sent to jail returns and wreaks his revenge — leading to Mathieu’s dismissal from the institution and his heartbreaking departure from the boys. Many years later, a world-famous conductor named Pierre Morhange (Jacques Perrin) remembers the fleeting presence of the man who changed his life.
Inspired by a 50-year-old film, La Cage Aux Rossignols, director Christophe Barratier (Jacques Perrin’s nephew), who himself sang in a chorus, makes a remarkable debut. Last year, The Chorus was France’s highest grossing film, selling more than 8.6 million tickets, and was Oscar-nominated as Best Foreign Language Film.
Some people criticize The Chorus for being predictable. That’s a minor flaw in a story that shows the power one dedicated teacher has to change the world. Add incredible music to the lofty tale and you have a great, graceful, don’t-miss-it movie. Rated PG-13 for some language/sexual references and violence.
– reviewed by Marci Miller