The Chorus (12a)
A few weeks ago an article on Radio 4’s Today programme featured a young girl, eleven or twelve, who saved dozens of lives on a beach in the Far East when she identified the early signs that a tsunami might be on the way. At the end of the feature James Naughtie, the presenter, said, ‘I think there was a good Geography teacher lurking in the background there somewhere’.
I mention this as it’s a better place to begin thinking about this film about a teacher than with the fact that, though the committee really liked Les Choristes, it was panned by a lot of English critics as a sentimental, cliché-ridden film, corny and nostalgic, set comfortingly in the far off 1940s. Moreover it can be said to mark a perceptible decline in French cinema, in contrast to the hard-hitting, socially relevant films of ten years ago like Mathieu Kassovitz’s drama of the Parisian underclass, ‘La Haine’ (Hate). And I guess if we’re honest, a title of Au Revoir Monsieur Les Pommes Frites would not be entirely inappropriate. But then a question might be why is it that so many films about teachers are both manipulative, sentimental and, as Les Choristes is, warm hearted and very enjoyable? The French public certainly enjoyed it. Les Choristes was the success story of French cinema in 2004 out-grossing Shrek2 or Harry Potter 3 at the French box office. It has since topped the DVD chart and a million copies of its soundtrack have been sold.
To the charge that the film is unrealistic, writer-composer-director, Christophe Barratier readily pleads guilty. He wanted, in remaking the 1945 film ‘La Cage aux Rossignols’ to make ‘studio cinema, a cinema of decors, a cinema of the fake, of re-creation,’ allowing him to ‘escape from the contemporary world’. The young first-time director openly acknowledged that he could not set the film in today’s world because he would have had to ‘get into’ delinquency, unemployment, etc. He indeed takes the artifice of the genre a stage further by substituting the voices of a real professional boys’ choir, Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint Marc, for that of the young actors, and this is fairly obvious the moment the young ragamuffins open their mouths to sing.
So it’s a socially irrelevant, highly contrived and sentimental exercise and yet it works. Why? Because it is sincerely sentimental. This is not because it’s true to the boys’ experience; after all these are the equivalents of the damaged delinquents Barratier can’t deal with in contemporary France, and certainly not true to the real experience of being a teacher. Our hero, the teacher, Mathieu, really is, as my son would say, ‘sad’, but it is true to the sentimental, nostalgic view pupils take of their old teachers when they get to adulthood. Teachers are thought of, like Naughtie’s Geography teacher, as ‘in the shadows somewhere’, not quite making it, like Mathieu, in what they really wanted to do. In the hackneyed phrase, ‘those who can’t, teach’. And yet they are also, for many adolescents, stepping stones, tender in memory, into adulthood.
Out for a drink, with an old teaching friend, burly men you’d be careful not to brush up against in the street, would gingerly approach, ‘Excuse me, you’re Mr Molloy, aren’t you? You taught me, early eighties…I knew it was you’. (Remember the brilliant café scene in last season’s ‘L’homme du Train’). And my friend Peter would have no idea who they were and yet their affection for their memories of ‘sir’ were as obvious as their smiles. In truth most pupils mean far less to their teachers than, in time, they do to them. The centres of their lives are elsewhere than their jobs, just like everybody else, yet the fact that they ‘lurk’ in the minds of their former pupils, for good, in both senses of the word, is why the film works.
Christophe Barratier | France | 2004 | 96 minutes | 12a