Christophe Barratier’s “The Chorus” is a piece of fluff. Beautifully shot, well-acted, French fluff with a lovely score, but fluff nonetheless. Regurgitating “Mr. Holland’s Opus” in large, undigested chunks, “The Chorus” settles down comfortably and unspectacularly in the ranks of second-rate boys-at-boarding-school and teacher-inspires-troubled-youth films.
The film begins when Pierre Morhange, a famed conductor and composer, receives the news of his mother’s death. Her funeral brings Morhange into contact with an old friend from school, Pepinot, who comes bearing memories and a journal written by one of their teachers, Clement Mathieu, from their school days. Morhange begins to read the journal, and we are transported back to his childhood. Tres originale!
The year is 1948, and Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot) is a failed musician who has taken a post as a supervisor at a reform school for boys. When he arrives at the school, he finds a repressive, prison-like place firmly gripped in the iron fist of tyrannical headmaster Rachin. Rachin views his students as hardened criminals rather than children and runs his school with a strict code of “action, reaction.” Students are punished for any and all offenses with “reactions” that include days of solitary confinement and corporal punishment. But, of course, Mathieu cannot reconcile himself to the system. He tries to establish trust between himself and his students, no easy task in a place where education is a pitched battle, and teachers and students see each other as sworn enemies.
At first, his efforts only make him the butt of the students’ pranks. But after he overhears them singing a mocking song about him one night, he is inspired — a true mark of stoicism. Drawing on his musical past, he begins composing songs for the boys and teaching them to sing. Before long, he turns them into the talented, titular chorus.
The boys learn the satisfaction of working hard and hearing the results of their efforts while Mathieu takes joy in returning to composing, his true calling. But this precarious happiness is constantly threatened by the eternally spiteful Rachin and the difficult conditions of the boys’ lives.
Maybe the world really was a better place in 1948, but one has difficulty believing the boys in this “reform school” would have been classified as incorrigible, even way back when. (“Dangerous Minds” this is not; their worst infractions include drawing caricatures of their teachers and stealing food from the refectory at night.) Rather, they are simply a bunch of schoolboys with angelic faces, whose spitball-launching antics are more endearing than appalling.
As adorable as it is to watch the boys naughtily launch paper planes from windows, this watered-down brand of mischief deprives the film of the chance to examine the effectiveness of society’s efforts to rehabilitate children that slip through the cracks. These are not children of broken homes, nor orphans toughened by the streets. They use the occasional off-color phrase and answer back to their professors cheekily, but they more or less fall into line when told to.
Worse than its superficiality is the film’s dearth of conflict. A few times the headmaster gets fed up with the boys’ singing, for no apparent reason, and threatens to shut the whole operation down. But, happily, these spells pass. Evidently, Barratier is happy just to gaze lovingly through his camera at a nostalgic reverie of bygone boyhood, all harmless mischief, summer days, and sepia tones.
Given such limited complexity to work with, it is not surprising that none of the adult actors are remarkable. Yet the children’s performances are excellent. Newcomer Jean-Baptiste Maunier communicates both cool detachment and vulnerability with a quiet earnestness as Morhange. Given little dialogue, he adeptly uses penetrating stares to eloquently express internal turmoil, which is more than you can say about the hero and villain. Gregory Gatignol is also a perfect mixture of frightening and sympathetic as Mondain, a hardened boy who comes to the school from a juvenile prison. He may be the most interesting character of all; intimidating and insolent, his bluster is interrupted now and then by the barest hints of mitigating circumstances from his past. But although his character is artfully developed, Barratier grows tired of him and casts him aside until the end — when he comes back as a deus ex machina.
The plot wanders around for an hour and half — during which a lot of quite lovely singing takes place — before Barratier remembers that he is supposed to be heading towards some kind of denouement. Not wanting to be bothered with unresolved questions of provocative moral issues, he wraps up everything into a nice, uplifting conclusion. The credits roll to the harmonic tones of boy sopranos, and we wonder where exactly the last 95 minutes went.