Fr. Nick gave us today a movie meant for “pure entertainment” for our European Films Class. There was no paper due for the film and he wanted us to simply watch and be entertained by the music. However, like any European movie, “Les Choristes” (2004) wasn’t simply entertaining. It again poked our minds and hearts, with no tinge of predictability and over-acting. Everything seemed raw; there were no sugar-coated moments. This French work by Christophe Barratier is a movie for all ages, for all moods.
Les Choristes is a story that begins with Clement Matthieu (Gerard Jugnot) arriving at the Fond de l’Etang, a school whose name literally translates to “at the bottom of the pond”. A boarding school for “difficult boys”, the institution is run by the unfeeling and obstinate headmaster, el directeur, Mr. Rachin. Clement Matthieu, who considers himself a musical failure, becomes the new supervisor.
On his very first day, he gets a taste of the harshness and crooked “action-reaction” paradigm of the school. The boys are rowdy, mischievous and problematic and the only way the administration treats them is through punishment. There is no genuine rehabilitation and renovation of spirit and heart in the school.
One day, however, Monsieur Matthieu hears the boys singing in their dormitory. “It wasn’t art…” but he thinks it’s a start. Alas, the process of building up a choir commences.
But it wasn’t only about the choir that the movie features. Far from it. It is also far from “Sister Act II”! Along the way, Monsieur Matthieu touches the very hearts of these problematic boys and since this is set in 1949, also the problematic adults who seem to still have a hang over of the War. He spots talents, corrects problems and hits the very source of the problem and not simply the problems symptoms. And what is at the heart of the problem of Fond de l’Etang? The lack of vision and HOPE for the boys.
As he wins the hearts of the kids, he takes special notice of two boys, Pierre Morhange (Jean Baptiste Maunier), an angel-faced, future-Lacoste-model troublemaker, and tiny orphan Pepinot (Maxence Perrin), a young boy always waiting for his parents killed by the Nazis to fetch him on Saturdays. Eventually, Pierre resolves his self-induced hatred for his mother, whom he thinks is a tad too flirty (she’s a widow) and at the same time, sharpens his musical prowess. With the voice of an angel, he shines in the choir and becomes the inspiration of Clement Matthieu, even helping Pierre get a scholarship in a prestigious music school in Lyon.
The movie ends with Clement Matthieu being fired by the conceited Mr. Rachin who is fuming angry after the school’s dormitory got fire while Clement took the children out for a summer walk through the forest. Mindful of his “reputation” in Lyon and his decoration, he severes Monsieur Clement from the students. Monsieur Clement accepts the decision but not without giving Mr. Rachin a mouthful.
As he waits for 6:00 PM bus, little Pepinot runs to him. With much hesitation, he takes the young boy with him. The movie proceeds to narrate how Pierre and his mother moved into Lyon where he indeed excelled in music school while Monsieur Clement, forgotten as a mere music teacher by the rest of the world, lived a life of sharing and generosity, training and forming generations of talented musicians.
As the movie ended, I was on the verge of crying. Good thing the girl behind me actually CRIED! hahahaha!
This movie about funny tricks, harsh punishments, the cruelty of the real world but also the moving hallmarks of solidarity, patience and love is well-written, executed beautifully and appreciated widely.
But I tell you, watch this masterful non-Hollywood work that is able to go beyond the extreme sentimentality of other movies of the same genre and hit the right notes, offering any viewer the truth about orphaned boys, music and hope.