A relentlessly heartwarming addition to the annals of One-Teacher-Can-Make-a-Difference pics, “Les Choristes” takes place during one semester at a boy’s boarding school-cum-reformatory in small-town France, circa 1949. No stereotype is left unheralded and no heartstring left untugged in this freely adapted remake of Jean Dreville’s mostly forgotten “La cage aux rossignols” (released in the U.S. in 1947 as “A Cage of Nightingales”). Nicely crafted ode to the essential goodness in nearly everyone is proudly old-fashioned to such an extent that its tried-and-true structure may even strike today’s young auds as being something new.
Miramax landed this property for $2 million in the Berlin market; no surefire marketing hook immediately presents itself except the promise of a non-threatening foreign-language experience that leaves auds with hope, cheer and the impulse to tell their neighbors to go see it. Pic opens March 17 in Gaul, where lead Gerard Jugnot enjoys a popular following.
Adult thesps and moppets give dandy perfs under first-time helmer Christophe Barratier, a classically trained musician who’s worked as a hands-on producer at Jacques Perrin’s shingle (“Microcosmos,” “Himalaya,” “Winged Migration”) for over a decade. However, pic’s charms don’t kick in immediately: Opening sequences are so top-heavy with hackneyed emotion that the film nearly capsizes before it begins. But once story is safely out of the present-day prologue and into the extended flashback of pic proper, all is well and thoroughly enjoyable.
World-class orchestra conductor Pierre Morhange (Perrin) returns to France for his mother’s funeral. Within hours, Pepinot (Didier Flamand), an erstwhile classmate he hasn’t seen for more than 50 years, appears at Morhange’s door with the memory-jogging diary kept by Clement Mathieu (Jugnot), the tubby, balding amateur musician who arrived at their boarding school in January 1949.
Morhange barely recalls the name of the fellow who set him on the path from frustrated delinquent to international glory. But Mathieu’s illustrated diary proves that he was as gifted at noting the most colorful episodes of his stay at the school as he was at taming his unruly charges.
Mathieu is a decent fellow who conventional success has eluded. He reports to Fond de l’Etang (literally “Bottom of the Pond”) boarding school where 60 boys suffer under headmaster Rachin (Francois Berleand), a bitter disciplinarian. Rachin’s response to every transgression is a spell in solitary confinement. The austere school itself is just a shade more homey than Alcatraz on a foggy day.
Although the lads are little rascals, Mathieu knows enough child psychology to win most of them over. Against Rachin’s wishes, Mathieu, who was hired as a simple teacher’s aid, organizes two dozen boys into a choir.
Some of the singing boarders, such as little Pepinot (Jacques’ son, Maxence Perrin), are orphans; others have been sent there by the authorities or by parents who can’t cope with minor behavioral problems. In the latter category is Pierre Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier) who looks like an angel but behaves otherwise. His single mom, Violette (Marie Bunel), can’t keep him because she works in a restaurant– although she’s so pretty Pierre’s classmates assume she’s really a prostitute.
When Mathieu figures out that Pierre possesses an innately exquisite singing voice, simmering resentments as well as hidden talents bubble forth.
Pic works because it’s set in a bygone era when teachers and clergy had absolute authority and the slightest innovation or kindness could change otherwise restricted lives. Tale’s universal resonance is that of seminal and formative youthful experiences — perhaps barely understood at the time but oh-so-crucial in burnished retrospect.
Widescreen lensing does justice to evocative production design. Musical performances and incidental music are neatly integrated, with debuting Maunier’s vocals and performance a real find.