The Sunday Film Review: Les Choriste
Director: Christophe Barratier (2004)
These days I try to avoid meeting new people whenever possible………………….. Actually it’s not just these days, I’ve always tried avoiding people, because the more I meet people the less I like people.
In the all too frequent situations where I can’t avoid meeting someone new, and am then, for some as yet unexplained reason, expected to make small talk (because apparently staying silent suggests you may be a, and I quote, ‘psycho fuck pig’), my go to icebreaker is film. It’s not that I don’t have other interests, I do, but film’s considered a more varied and socially acceptable interest than Cricket, Satan Tory bashing and/or Ska-Punk music.
What’s nice about film is that generally I find I can spend as much time conversing about a film I hated as much as one I loved. For instance, I can talk all day about how awful Rise of the Planet of the Apes was, but not so much about my loathing for One Direction songs, because I’ve never really heard more than 3 seconds of a One Direction song, so even though I’m 99.99999% positive I hate One Direction songs, I’m not educated enough to discuss why that is. Fact is, people will sit through a bad film, they won’t stop to listen to an atrocious song……….unless it’s in a film.
Very often I’ll initiate the topic with some broad question like, ‘what sort of films do you watch?’ and often the reply is something safe involving Die Hard, Fight Club or a genre like Disney, action, comedy, Tim Burton.…………. Word of advice, never judge someone by the films they tell a stranger they like, because they will always list popular blockbusters or genres, even though later you discover their bedroom’s adorned with posters for A Serbian Film or Muriel’s Wedding.
Anyway, after talking about a particular film or genre they’ve listed, I look to see if there’s an escape root out of my awkward social nightmare, 99 times out of 100 there isn’t, so I press on. ‘Do you ever watch foreign films?’ The reply I receive usually involves head shaking and far too often a declaration of aversion to subtitles. My next step, regardless of what the person said, is to recommended Oldboy……….. and I mean Oldboy, because there will only ever be one Oldboy, there’s an American tribute by Spike Lee due out soon (one that the trailer suggests is far too close to the original for comfort), but mark my words, that won’t even be fit to lace the originals boots…. Fuck you Josh Brolin!
Moving on in 3,2,1…………
I’ve been dating the girl who occasionally allows me to violate her for about a year and a half now, and while we’ve happily reached the stage where I can simply grunt in her direction, or tell her to shut up without jeopardising my chance of late night intimacy………… that wasn’t always the case. Early on I had to be charming, insightful, intelligible, tolerant and a boatload of other adjectives that never have and never will come naturally. Over cheap but plentiful portions of food at Noodle Inn (on London Road, Sheffield, go, just go, you won’t regret it) I spent long hours talking to the (un)lucky lady, hoping she’d get be too attached to leave once I revealed my terrible final dickish wannabe indie filmmaker form. The topic of film very quickly came up, and when I asked about foreign films, the conversation went like this;
Me: ‘Do you ever watch foreign films?’
Poor Unfortunate Soul: ‘Not really, I watched a French film once that was amazing, it was called Les Choristes’
A year and a half later, while rummaging around for a Nintendo DS and a Playstation 2 (best console ever made bar none) in her parent’s loft, the girl I’m occasionally allowed to violate found Les Choristes. We watched it, I saw her point and better yet, a wonderful excuse to get my French on, so here, not before time, is a review of Les Choristes, starting a patented plot summary.
Frenchman Pierre Morhange (Jacques Perrin), a world renowned classical conductor, returns to the country currently trying to shake it’s cheese-eating surrender monkey image by bombing sections of the Middle East (doesn’t tend to end well), to attend his mother’s funeral. After the funeral, Morhange sits at home quietly reflecting on his decision to not bring an umbrella to a clichéd rain soaked funeral, when he’s disturbed by a tap tap tapping at his chamber door. The cause of which is the singularly named Pépinot (Didier Flamand). Pépinot is an old school friend of Morhange from way back when, who has come bearing gifts, well one gift actually, a diary kept by an old teacher of Morhange’s named Clément Mathieu. Not sure how that fits in with the mother’s funeral theme, but Morhange seems receptive enough.
Going back in time fifty years (via a nice transition involving the diary) we discover Clément Mathieu (a wonderful Gérard Jugnot) was a failed musician who applied for the ‘lowly’ job of ‘supervisor’ at the Fond de l’Étang (translation: Bottom of the pond) boarding school for troubled boys. Once there he battled other teachers, troublesome boys (including young Morhange), a countess and a strict headmaster (a fine François Berléand) in order to set up a choir and teach his class of boys to sing, then believe in themselves, then finally be their own o captain my captain.
Plot summary finishes.
Yup, Les Choristes is one of those older teacher bonds with troublesome child stories, (even Star Wars had two of those…….. one worked) and in many ways it’s actually one of the lighter films to brace the topic. It’s certainly not as dark as the likes of Dead Poets Society, nor does it have the social conscience of films like Good Will Hunting or Remember the Titans……………. What’s that, I’ve only listed English language films in a review that took a pot-shot at the anti-subtitle masses? Ok then, there’s a lack of the characterisation seen in the likes of Great Teacher Onizuka, the depth of a Monsieur Lazhar or the bizarreness of a My Teacher, Mr Kim…………….. boom!
What Les Choristes does have, is class, rich Gallic filmmaking class.
The acting for instance, is absolutely wake up and taste the onion soup fantastic, which says a lot considering the majority of the cast were child actors. Gérard Jugnot steals the show with a heart-warming performance, and it’s especially fun watching him interact with the students, I get the feeling there’s a lot of improvisation going on, more than once it looks like a child actor is moments away from bursting into laughter………… which works, because for the most part the lives of these children are as bleak as crappy supermarket workers, so a bit of joy is welcome. The support cast are also strong, particularly François Berléand as the headmaster, until the end you’re never quite sure if he hates children or just believes strong discipline is the best way for them to achieve something in their life. The child actors are competent (less said = better performance) but there is an interesting, and really rather mature turn by Grégory Gatignol as Mondain, a troubled boy who may or may not be a rapist.
The location Fond de l’Étang breaths life; every wall, every minute detail has been paid attention to. They filmed at Château de Ravel, a rather nice looking castle in France, and went as far as to scorch walls to achieve the dilapidated look of a run down boarding school (at least that’s what they did according to Wikipedia, the lazy researcher bible). The end result is a breathtakingly detailed world that the trouble children inhabit. This attention to detail is all the more remarkable when you consider Les Choristes was the debut feature of Barratier, though he had produced a fair few things by then, still, hell of an accomplished debut.
Now we come to the real selling point of Les Choristes, the soundtrack. Morhange may be the accomplished child singer, but a fair few of those boys can clearly sing, and the film is rightly lauded for some consummate original recordings. I’m not so convinced, because choral singing tends to lack the presence of a saxophone and therefore can’t be considered real music in my book, but the girl who allows me to occasionally violate her, bought the soundtrack and assures me that if you’re into that sort of thing then it’s a must have musical collection. Either way, the use of music in the film is exemplary, doesn’t drag and the story progresses in a way where you can mark the development of not just Morhange’s character, but the boys choir as a whole.
There are some negatives, a big one is that, by being a film adaptation of a book, Les Choristes displays the typical problem of a lack of depth to some characters that turn out to be pretty damn important. There’s a countess for instance who funds the boys school, and that’s all I can tell you about her. Likewise some of the boys are just sort of there, sure they have names, but that’s about it, which is a shame, because there’s definitely a consistent group dynamic, there just doesn’t seem to have been time to explore it.
Then there are the little things that bugged me; Clément Mathieu kept a diary from the first day he walked into Fond de l’Étang, yet very early on the boys break into his personal cupboard and steal his stuff, yet no mention of the diary is made. Maybe it’s just the boys weren’t interested in a diary naming and shaming them when there was sheet music to be grabbed………………………. more likely it’s that the diary was added as a plot device specifically for the film (in the book the diary is published in a newspaper way after the fact) and as such, they forgot to carry the device through the rest of the film. It’s not that big a thing, but it annoys me when attention to detail is paid to the location, and then not the story.
Speaking of story, while Les Choristes is certainly a deep, well told story, it’s also a relatively timid one. There are subtle hints to some of the issues we know can affect schools where children considered ‘troublesome’ are left in the care of slightly sadistic institutions without oversight; a paedophile suggestion here, an abuse of power analogy there, but nothing’s really explored in any great depth. There is a brutal scene of a child getting beaten, and I mean horribly beaten, round the face, for a good length of time, and yet there’s no real exploration of the aftermath, no outrage by our morale characters, no acknowledgement that this kind of stuff is shocking and not meant to occur. It’s almost as if Les Choristes shrugged its shoulders and said ‘fine, here’s some of the more sinister stuff that can occur in this type of situation, now back to the lovely singing’.
I’m not saying Les Choristse is a shallow film, it’s got a number of strong, deep characters, just that it’s a safe one, the boys are troubled but we never really find out why, the headmaster may be abusive, but there’s no reason, Clément Mathieu failed as a musician, but you don’t know how or why. It’s almost as if the screenwriter thought such things would be too depressing for a film about troubled boys bonding with a teacher and learning to sing beautifully. That may be true, but then again, understanding more about the boys may have made their development into well behaved choir-singers all the more special.
And now to conclude: Les Choristes is a lovely little film, sure I’m complaining about a lack of grittiness, but there’s just because I’m a terrible person, it’s got warmth, loveliness and fantastic performances across the board. It’s a class act, a safe class act, but a class act nonetheless.
Written by Sam ‘No, no I don’t want to talk to you’ McKinstrie
Unnecessarily on twitter as McKinstHFP
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