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Well-Played 'Chorus'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2005; Page WE36

IT SHOULD be clear from the outset that "The Chorus," also known as "Les Choristes," is larded over with le fromage, which is to say, French cheese. But as these dairy products go, Christophe Barratier's movie is delectable sentiment. Audiences will crumble into itty-bitty pieces of Roquefort watching this.

Barratier's movie is about the moon-faced teacher Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot) who, in 1949 France, walks into a vale of hopelessness: a school for troubled boys named Fond de l'Etang, which means "rock bottom," or literally, "bottom of the pond."

Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot) conducts boys in the French movie "The Chorus" ("Les Choristes"), nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. (Miramax Films)

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The place languishes under the reactionary thumb of Monsieur Rachin (Francois Berleand), a headmaster whose doctrine of "action-reaction" means instant, harsh reprisal for wrongdoers. The students are no picnic, either. As soon as he arrives, Clement learns that two of them have slashed school janitor Maxence (Jean-Paul Bonnaire) in the face with a pair of scissors.

It looks as though the apparently hapless Clement -- who suggests a Gallic Wallace Shawn -- will be an instant target for derision and even physical abuse. Not so. He shows his stuff early on, when he forces one of Maxence's assailants to help the old man recuperate. And when one student sings a sarcastic song about "Old Baldy," a bold idea germinates. A musician himself, Clement decides to make a choir out of this unruly mob.

After Rachin begrudgingly gives him the nod, Clement finds his mission, and the boys begin to realize new avenues of expression. And it turns out the troublesome Pierre Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier) sings like an angel.

"The Chorus," its storyline suggested by a relatively little-known 1945 French film called "A Cage of Nightingales," has reaped $60 million at home. (See Film Notes, Page 44.) It has turned the 14-year-old Maunier (a genuine soprano who does his own singing) into a national celebrity. And it has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. That's not too shabby for first-time filmmaker Barratier, who made this with little money (about $6 million), only one camera and a host of amateur child actors.

If a certain opus of Mr. Holland comes to mind, this story is far more engaging. Certainly "Chorus" shares a similarly pandering agenda with the Disney film and others like it, but it doesn't seem so industrially ordered. It has children who look like bad urchins, as opposed to middle-class junior professionals. And its postwar setting, which passingly echoes many classic French films about naughty kids and tyrannical adults, including "Zero for Conduct," "The 400 Blows" and "Au Revoir Les Enfants," gives it an authoritatively edgy feel. Even though the basic storyline parallels the "Nightingales" film (a singing teacher, unruly kids and a ruthless headmaster), the characters and their situations reflect Barratier's own experiences in a French boarding school in the late '60s and early '70s. Sure "Chorus" may be sentimental cheese, but it comes directly from the heart.

THE CHORUS (LES CHORISTES) (PG-13, 96 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, sexual references and violence. In French with subtitles. At Landmark's Bethesda Row.

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