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A Worn-Out Tale's Unexpected Harmony

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 28, 2005; Page C05

Music soothes the little savages running wild through a school for troubled boys in "The Chorus" ("Les Choristes"), the handsome and popular French film that picked up an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film this week.

The movie is ultimately effective on its own unambitious terms, but it's not the freshest thing to come down the pike. Think "Dangerous Minds" with singing; think "Mr. Holland's Opus" without the Richard Dreyfuss angst. Think "Going My Way" with Bing Crosby coaxing street toughs into some sweet harmonizing. You've seen this picture before.

Marie Bunel plays a single mother and Gerard Jugnot a shy, put-upon teacher in "The Chorus." Jean-Baptiste Maunier, below, plays a sulking teenager who discovers his true voice. (Photos Via Miramax Films)

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Apparently they have versions of this hackneyed story in France, too. "Les Choristes" is based on a 1945 French film called "The Cage of Nightingales," so it's almost impossible for writer-director Christophe Barratier to score any points for originality. Not that he tries awfully hard: The formula of the humane teacher painstakingly getting through to hardened kids is clung to like a security blanket.

To give Barratier his due, "The Chorus" hits its marks very well. It opens with a shot of Manhattan, where world-class French conductor Pierre Morhange (played by Jacques Perrin) is about to be whisked back to France to bury his mother. At home, Morhange gets a surprise visit from a very old friend named Pepinot (Didier Flamand). Pepinot wants to show him the diary kept by Clement Mathieu, the supervisor who changed both their lives one pivotal year at the boys' school ominously known as "Rock Bottom."

From there the movie flashes back to 1949 and relives the events in Mathieu's journal, starting with his first glimpse of little Pepinot waiting forlornly at the iron gate for parents who will never come. The school, which has the crumbling stone walls and peeling paint of a neglected prison -- the movie was shot in an old French castle -- is a battle zone. No sooner does the mild-mannered Mathieu arrive than one of the staff members is badly gashed by a booby trap set by one of the kids.

"Action-reaction," barks Rachin, the school's borderline sadistic headmaster. Then it's out to the wasteland of a schoolyard for the "reaction": Rachin intends to smoke the malefactor out or make everyone suffer.

Could the movie's dramatic conflict be more stark? Shall we handle kids with an iron fist, or might we try a little tenderness? Naturally, you root for the gentle Mathieu, a small, bald, unremarkable man played with shy appeal by Gerard Jugnot. Mathieu's quiet "Yes" is not good enough for Rachin, whose withering imperiousness compels Mathieu to correct himself with a meek "Yes, sir."

Mathieu is not a natural fighter, and his arrival in this dead-end job suggests a fair amount of losing in his life. Turns out he's a closet composer, though he's sworn off music for reasons we never get to know. Time and again, though, you see fear flicker across Jugnot's humble face before he steels his nerve and takes a chance, whether he's suggesting alternative disciplinary action to Rachin (an oily, weasely figure as played by Francois Berleand), trying to control his unruly class, or presenting himself hopefully to young Pierre's lovely single mother (Marie Bunel).

The chorus is Mathieu's big gambit, and it's almost certainly on the wings of the ethereal score that the movie has become such a hit. The lyrics to the songs Mathieu (actually, Barratier) writes for the boys are distressingly blunt, featuring lines about "the depths of despair" and "the surging wave of hope." But the melodies, largely composed by Bruno Coulais, often have a swelling, melancholy quality with a boy soprano solo line -- sung by Jean-Baptiste Maunier as the teenage Pierre, a sulking miscreant finding himself at last -- soaring high above.

If the music doesn't get you -- all those wide-eyed boys at last aligned and singing in well-executed harmony, lingered over by Barratier in shot after shot -- then the ending will. Barratier's unexpected climactic uplift comes around not just once, but twice, resulting in a finish so sweet (if heavily sentimental) that "The Chorus" might have gone down as an endearing fable, if only the route to its finale had been less cliched.

The Chorus (96 minutes, in French with subtitles, at Landmark Bethesda Row) is rated PG-13 for serial impudence, mild violence, references to sex and underage profanity.

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