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Les Choristes


 

Les Choristes
Directed by Christophe Barratier
A personal perspective by Ken Lyen


Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
(Warning: Spoilers below)

Les Choristes is a delightful little film about a newly appointed teacher, Clement Mathieu, who arrives at a wretched reform school for orphaned, abandoned, and psychologically troubled boys, run by a masochistic headmaster.

When I saw the film, the only piece of information I was given, was that it was about a schoolteacher starting a choir. Period. Using just that skeletal piece of information, I constructed a mental picture in my mind as to what I the film was going to be like. I imagined it was going to be a traditional feel-good movie about a music teacher with an unconventional teaching style, rescuing a bunch of forsaken students, transforming them into little angels. Throw in an obligatory villainous headmaster, add a romantic love interest, flash forward to show how the teacher affected the future lives of his students, manipulate the emotions to make the audience cry, and voila, you have the standard Hollywood-style schoolteacher movie.

This is the formula used (with some variations) by a myriad of films about music teachers, such as Mr Holland’s Opus, Music of the Heart, and non-music teachers, like To Sir With Love, Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, etc.

My predictions of Les Choristes were not entirely wrong, yet interestingly off target. In fact I was pleasantly surprised. The subject matter was approached in a fresh manner, and I could not always predict the plot turns. It did not try to manipulate my emotions, and I was reasonably satisfied with the understated ending. The feel of the movie was a little reminiscent of Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (400 Blows), the musicals Oliver!, and Annie, where authority figures were despotic and insensitive to the needs of the students, allowing flagrant injustices to be perpetrated.

The motto of the school was "Action-Reaction", which meant that every misdemeanour would attract a punitive reaction. Unfortunately the punishment meted out was usually far too malignant for our current sensibilities. Indeed when one of the more incorrigible delinquents was wrongly punished and sent away for an act he did not commit, he would later on wreak revenge on the school.

I like the way Mathieu was always trying to use unconventional methods to deal with his rebellious students. For example when a student drew a caricature of him on the blackboard, he retaliated by drawing a caricature of the student. When a student injured the school caretaker, his punishment was to nurse the caretaker.

A former music teacher and amateur composer, Mathieu realised that by starting a choir, he could use music to instil a sense of purpose and optimism to the school. Slowly the students, teachers, and to a limited extent, the headmaster, became influenced by Mathieu and his music, and changed. However, Mathieu’s unwillingness to tow the official line would ultimately come to blows with the headmaster, and his choir would be driven underground.

In general, the acting was superb. There were poignant moments in the film, like when the music inspired the boys and lifted them above their drab surroundings. Allow me to underline this point. The singing was radiant and the purity of the voices sublimated the savage environment into a heavenly realm.

I would have given the film a higher rating were it not for some glaring flaws. I could not believe that nearly everyone in this school of misfits could sing so well, and in tune! But I guess this is the fairy tale element of the film. The headmaster was initially portrayed to be a martinet, but his transformation into a slightly comic buffoon, eg flying paper planes, was just too incredulous. The complex love-hate relationship between one of the boys, Pierre Morhange, and his mother was not well explained. And although I was not dissatisfied with the way the film ended, I felt it closed a little bit too abruptly.

But despite all these faults, I would still strongly recommend this film. Do try to watch it, especially if you love choral music.