WHEN Christophe Barratier made a low-budget movie about a choir teacher who turns a school of 1940s miscreants into an angelic choir, he figured it would have some critical success. He didn't think "Les Choristes" (aka "The Chorus") would make more than $60 million (or more than 9 million admissions, as the French like to measure it), an astronomical figure for a small French film. And it hasn't even opened in the United States yet. (It opens Friday; see review on Page 36.) Miramax is hoping that this crowd-pleaser will become a dark-horse hit. It has just been nominated as France's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, and its word of mouth is consistently strong.
The story, although based loosely on a 1945 film ("A Cage of Nightingales"), is autobiographical: Barratier was sent to boarding school (about 20 miles from Paris near Versailles) in the late 1960s by parents who were too busy to look after him. He stayed there from ages 5 to 10 and was very upset at his family. His life, he says, was transformed by a music teacher who taught the 7-year-old Christophe to read and write music.
"I just wanted to write a story about my childhood," says Christophe Barratier, director of "The Chorus."
"He discovered I was very talented," Barratier says. "So he organized a little boys choir. We were only 15 [members], and I was the soprano. I think this artistic experience changed my life at this time."
When Barratier's mother took him out of school, she sent him to a music conservatory, where he practiced classical guitar six hours a day. The movie's leading child character, Pierre Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier), is an angelic soprano whose haunting voice charms the teacher, played by Gerard Jugnot. The boy is definitely Barratier's alter ego, Barratier acknowledges. And there's a little bit of personal history in the character Pepinot (Maxence Perrin), a young boy who waits every Saturday at the gate for parents who never come.
So why set the time period to be the late 1940s?
Says the 41-year-old Barratier: "The story was so autobiographical that I preferred to have some distance. And I thought, with the story set in the past, it would be much more universal. . . . If it were set nowadays, of course, we do not have the same problems here in Paris that we have in Europe or Washington. And I did not want to make a social movie about delinquents. I just wanted to write a story about my childhood and what can be universal in my childhood."
The postwar period was an interesting one, Barratier says. The fictional school is based on the "reeducation schools" that were created for children who had lost parents or family in the war or for wayward kids. Barratier's real school wasn't as tough as the one depicted in the movie, but it "marked the end of the old pedagogical methods," he says. "The striking of the hands for punishment. You had to write things 200 times over when you made a mistake. People who made mistakes had to wear 'I Am a Donkey' posters on their backs. And if you wanted a drink, you had to pick up 50 pieces of paper in the schoolyard. And I was a victim of bullying."
Barratier, born into a filmmaking family (his uncle and parents were all well known in the French industry), never intended to be a filmmaker. But when he realized that most classical guitarists end up being teachers (there are no orchestras with classical guitars), he went into filmmaking. "Les Choristes" is his first feature, and it couldn't have gone better.
"After the movie made the first million admissions," Barratier says, "the critics said, 'Oh, that's because of [well-known comedian and lead actor] Gerard Jugnot. After two million, they said, 'Maybe it's because of the kids.' After three million, they said, 'Maybe it's because of the good music.' And after that, they said, 'Maybe it's because it's an optimistic story.' And I thought: Maybe it's a good movie?"
Actor and drama professor Michael Ellis-Tolaydo will speak after Friday's 8:15 screening of "The Merchant of Venice" (see review on Page 36) at the Avalon Theatre. Ellis-Tolaydo has starred in and directed several Shakespeare plays, including playing Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" at the Source Theatre in 1995. Variety film critic Eddie Cockrell will introduce him and field questions from the audience.
Tickets are $10 and may be purchased in advance at the Avalon box office (5612 Connecticut Ave. NW). Visit www.theavalon.org or call 202-966-6000 for more information.
-- Desson Thomson