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Film review: 'Choristes' muses on power of music

Published: Friday, March 4 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

LES CHORISTES (THE CHORUS) — *** — Gerard Jugnot, Francois Berleand, Jean-Baptiste Maunier; in French, with English subtitles; rated PG-13 (vulgarity, profanity, violence).

There's something refreshing — and endearing — about the optimistic belief in the transforming qualities of music, an idea that is prevalent in the French feel-good drama "Les Choristes (The Chorus)."

Some may find that belief naive and may even find the movie more than a little sentimental — primarily because of its position that effective discipline also requires equal amounts of compassion — as well as formulaic, predictable and pretty manipulative.

But "The Chorus" is also very effective. The film's old-fashioned merits bring to mind "The Dead Poets Society" and "Goodbye, Mr. Chips."

Most of the story is told through flashbacks, the post-World War II remembrances of two former boarding-school chums. One of them, Pierre Monhange (veteran French actor Jacques Perrin, who also produced the film), has gone on to become a renowned musician and composer.

That's due in no small part to the efforts of Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot) — a teacher who is a big old softie, and who seems to be a bad fit in the punishment-first atmosphere at Fond de L'etang (the school's name roughly translates as "rock bottom").

Mathieu's new students have been taking advantage of his kindhearted nature. But he notices that several of them have talent — musical talent. So the would-be composer begins putting together a choir, hoping that it will teach the boys discipline and lighten the mood at the school.

His efforts meet resistance from the school's no-nonsense headmaster (Francois Berleand), who believes the effort will be, in his words, "good for a laugh." But even he has to eat his words when the practice pays off — especially for one student, the angelic-faced Pierre, who has an even-more-angelic singing voice.

Co-screenwriter/director Christopher Barratier gets bogged down a little with a go-nowhere subplot about Mathieu's infatuation with Pierre's mother (Marie Bunel). And the transformation of the students from hooligans to choirboys is ridiculously swift. And they sound too perfect to be believed.

But the music is lovely, as is the never-rushed pacing. Add to that Jugnot's very low-key lead performance, and you've got a formula to overcome even the film's most problematic moments.

"Les Choristes (The Chorus)" is rated PG-13 for use of some fairly crude sexual slang terms (as well as a vulgar cartoon), scattered use of strong profanity and a brief scene of violence (punishment, including slapping). Running time: 95 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com