Title: The Chorus
Genre: Drama, Music
Director: Christophe Barratier
Screenwriters: Georges Chaperot, René Wheeler
Starring: Gérard Jugnot, François Berléand, Jean-Baptiste Maunier
“Formula” has been a vaguely derogatory term in film criticism for God knows how long, but I wonder if that makes any sense. Filmmaking is based on formulas, after all, with editing, cinematography, etc., based almost entirely on long-established, if evolving, traditions. Understandably, story formulas take the most heat, as critics and moviegoers demand to see originality in the aspect of cinema that is most palpable to them, but once you see enough movies, you realize that everything is a formula on one level or another. Some just bury them deeper below the surface.
Christophe Barratier’s lovely The Chorus will take a beating with the “formula” sledgehammer, and even its defenders will have to acknowledge that the plot’s skeleton is about as by-the-numbers as it gets, Mr. Holland’s Opus meets Dead Poets Society. I cannot say that the film surprised me, inspired me, or showed me something I hadn’t seen before. But originality and trenchant insight have never been necessary conditions for quality, not even in our conception of “foreign film,” and I can comfortably recommend The Chorus while admitting that it breaks no new ground. It doesn’t break much of anything.
The movie’s success is due mostly to the practiced, skillful way it operates within the confines of its conventions. Its villain, a horrid, cruel, self-absorbed boarding school principal, is theoretically insufferable without becoming literally so; the hero, a kindhearted new supervisor who tames the rowdy children by teaching them to sing, is impish, quick on his feet, and likable; the kids, some quiet, some troublesome, some aloof, some just danged adorable, rarely make you want to dropkick them across the room. Basically, everything functions as it is supposed to in a movie like this, and with so much riding on simply hitting the right notes, that’s a useful first step.
The script, by Barratier and Phillipe Lopes-Curval, does a masterful job of establishing the protagonist, Clement Mathieu, as a reasonable person. (Contrast him with the clinically insane Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society.) He sympathizes with the kids trapped in the horrendous place that hires him, but he is also manifestly just a regular guy, and his attempts to subvert the system are always limited by reality. He will also punish when he has to, though it brings him pain to do so; the main storyline involves an inexplicably withdrawn kid named Pierre who has the voice of an angel but also a nasty rebellious spirit, and Mathieu’s attempts to tame him are sometimes desperate and inept, but always somehow believable.
Mathieu is played by the veteran Gerard Jugnot, who has the sort of nondescript appearance that could pass for a music teacher or a Supreme Court Justice. A talented comic, he diffuses any potential for self-righteous piety with an airy, easygoing humor. It is all likely to have been cynically calculated to tug at the heartstrings, but you don’t realize it at the time; though the word “formula” was in the back of my mind throughout the film, “manipulative” didn’t come up until later. And of course, realizing ex post facto that you’ve been manipulated brings no shame on the film or the audience. All movies manipulate, just like all follow formulas; it’s the ones that make you acutely aware of their machinations that fail.
The Chorus proceeds and ends pretty much exactly the way you would expect; for a while I thought that this might be one of those numbers that suddenly disrupts its idyllic, familiar milieu with a Terrible Tragedy, etc., but no: what you see is pretty much what you get. That won’t sound interesting to some, and film buffs in particular will scoff, but I beg to differ: The Chorus is a fine example of a movie that does exactly what it is archetypically supposed to, and does it well. In the complete absence of distinguishing story features, it is pure craftsmanship.