Chrisophe Barratier’s directorial debut The Chorus became an acclaimed masterstroke worldwide. About an inspirational music teacher who comes to teach at a boarding school for rebellious children, Les Choristes, was inspired by a little known French film La Cage aux Rossignols (The Cage of Nightingales). A deeply moving psychological film on childhood, The film is about the early feelings of injustice and abandon; the inbuilt sense of fright together with those rebellious impulses that lurk...
Chrisophe Barratier’s directorial debut The Chorus (Also The Choir) became an acclaimed masterstroke worldwide - after all a movie about music and its powers rarely passes you by without any wonders. About an inspirational music teacher who comes to teach at a boarding school for rebellious children, Les Choristes, was inspired by a little known French film La Cage aux Rossignols (The Cage of Nightingales), directed by Jean Dréville in 1945. This movie too was about a young teacher who starts a choral group for delinquent children. It was the combination of music and childhood that drew him to the forgotten film, so Barratier bought the rights and went on to make a sort of homage to the film. But the films are very different from each other - The Chorus is part autobiographical and part fiction. “I had been unconsciously walking around with this story inside me for a long time,” he says. “Writing the script was good therapy in a way, allowing me some closure on my own childhood, which wasn’t unhappy, but which was, at times, very difficult.”
Set in the year of 1949, Les Choristes is a sweet, moving manifestation of the difficult childhood that the director refers to. Only some years after the end of World War II, when many children were orphaned, abandoned and left quivering with the remnant terrors of war, many schools in the form of children refuges sprung up. This movie shows Barratier's creation of one such Fond de L'Etang, a terrifying fortress like boarding school that was put up to take care of particularly “difficult” children. Run by the despotic Rachin (Francois Berléand), the children in the school are a range of rebellious ruffians, disobedient thugs and bossy boys, together with a handful of abiding little darlings. Here little Pepinot waits every Saturday, certain that his father will come to take him, Le Querrec never tires of making hazardous mischiefs, Mondain is forever destructive with his outrageous tendencies, and Jean-Baptiste Maunier who plays young Morhange (the boy lead in the film) is the quick-tempered devil, outfitted with a face of an angel. The frustrated teachers in the school treat any waywardness around with their ridiculously harsh action-reaction principle - one which comprises of unsympathetic thrashings, pitiless labor and solitary detention. Their apathetic attitude results in making monsters out of misfits, and Fond de L'Etang lives on as a formidable and sad place, never to show a day of grace.
When Clement Mathieu (played by French star comedian Gerard Jugnot), the school’s forbearing new supervisor arrives, the boys are initially obstinate, but gradually give in to their instructor’s soft and humane ways. Their new supervisor, quite uncomfortable and disapproving of the school’s heartless methods, derives an optimistic strategy to inculcate in these children an extraordinary sense of discipline and self worth. He spares the rod and single-handedly forms a melodic choral group in the school, and the children are seen to rejoice in a way like never before. Morhange the quiet brat, with his divine voice is made the lead chorus singer, and the choir sings in the kind of rapturous harmony that makes their teacher’s face glow with pride. The sheer joy of using their potential keeps the students engrossed with the magic of music and mal-practices in turn are rarely reported; instructors too get infected with a tender compassion that the choir songs infuse by echoing loud around them; And Rachin is seen tossing carefree paper planes all about his austere suite. Fond de L'Etang the dark and threatening abode becomes bright and enlivened by the unifying, strong power of music.
For Barratier, The Chorus was a mix of his two most powerful passions, music and cinema – a kind of catharsis. A trained classical guitarist, Barratier won several international competitions after studying at the acclaimed Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris before he shifted to making films. The loosely based autobiographical parts of the film come from the fact that his own parents divorced early, when he was sent to a boarding school. The little child Pepinot was a depiction of Barratier’s own little figure in school, who would wait at the gates every Saturday, for his father to come. Although he was still alive, Barratier's father never came. A teacher at the school (much like Clement Mathieu) discovered his musical talents as a soprano and encouraged him. For all his internal connections with the film the director most surely put his heart into the making of this film, and it shows - Intricate care and detailing have been put into all modest aspects of the film and there are several such instances. Gloomy tints of grey have been used for the beginning of the film, and progress to orange for the end. The film begins in clouds and ends in sunshine, from a dismal past of bleakness, to a hopeful future full of light. Barratier was absolutely meticulous in making sure that the Morhange in the film wasn’t an actor who could sing, but a singer who could act. He got an actual boy choir soloist Jean-Baptiste, the soloist of Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc, a choir. The young boy sang the songs as Morhange without any special effects in the film. For the others he auditioned more than 2000 children (non-actors) in the search of those “strange 50 faces” of his ruffians and misfits.
The movie only little before its release, was considered to be a very small low budget film. (This director too is of the opinion that one need not spend huge amounts of money to make good films.) But once the movie made its world wide release it topped all charts at the French box office, with more than 8.6 million admissions - much more than Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings. Even the music sold over a million copies. Actor Gerard Jugnot too made record breaking success with the release of this film. Hardly known outside of France, he earned the title of the highest paid French actor in 2004. And the movie went out to make another sparkling sensation in France - choirs that were considered downright old-fashioned, had a more than 100% increase in enrollments!
A deeply moving psychological film on childhood, The Chorus is about the early feelings of injustice and abandon; the inbuilt sense of fright, together with those rebellious impulses that lurk within children; A story about stolen childhoods but redeeming futures. One of my favorite films to date, The Chorus was nominated for the Oscar in year 2004, but was beaten by Spain's outstanding film (also one of my favorites), The Sea Inside. The director’s next road to success is under construction. His forthcoming film has music playing its important role once again, and the action this time takes place in the late thirties in Paris, just before World War II. While Barratier most definitely shows promise, will he recreate the magic of his first film? We will have to wait to watch.