February 12th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Kim Beazley - Labor's only hope?

EDITORIAL: Barking up the wrong tree ...

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Top free-market think-tank warns of 'banana republic'

SPECIAL FEATURE: Who speaks and acts for the communist dead?

BUSHFIRES: COAG inquiry skirts the real issues

VICTORIA: Judge links pornography and sexual assault

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Iraq election and the problem of Iran / Bushrangers hanging around the hospitals / Climbing the ladder to nowhere

INTERNATIONAL TRADE: US trade deals marginalise WTO

EAST ASIA: US's new strategy in the Far East

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS: First direct flights from Taiwan to mainland

OPINION: Good riddance to compulsory student unionism

The slaughtered generation (letter)

The Governor-General and the Constitution (letter)

CINEMA: Quality French film wins following - Les Choristes


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Quality French film wins following - Les Choristes

by R.J. Stove

News Weekly, February 12, 2005
Could there be such a thing in contemporary cinema as the Mel Gibson Syndrome? The Passion might have failed, shamefully if predictably, to acquire major Oscar nominations; but as if in response to The Passion's wider impact, Hollywood seems suddenly to have remembered - for the first time in aeons - the existence of literate adults.

Compare the sheer verve and cleverness in the dialogue of Ocean's Twelve and The Incredibles (to name but two post-Gibson successes) with the orgies of witless four-letter words which passed for screenwriting in most Hollywood hits even a few seasons back.

And consider Les Choristes, a beguiling new French production based partly on a neglected 1947 film called La Cage aux Rossignols.

Les Choristes is the sort of release from which most American distributors would have run miles just two or three years ago, once they realised the full horror of a movie deficient in both Tarantino-style nihilism and in bubble-headed Who Weekly icons disrobing.


Now multiplexes screen it without apparent qualms. (In France itself, Les Choristes' ticket sales during 2004 surpassed those for Shrek 2 and the last Harry Potter marathon.)

Set in 1949, Les Choristes - dealing with an unstoppable schoolteacher in an intensely Gallic context - can perhaps best be summed up as Mr Holland's Opus Gets A French Makeover or Dead Poets' Society Starts Making Room On Its Menu for Snails.

The hero, played by Gérard Jugnot, is Clement Mathieu: a failed musician (we never learn exactly why he failed), who for want of more congenial employment becomes surveillant - supervisor - at a boy's school in central France's Puy-de-Dôme region.

Unqualified for group pedagogy, except through (News Weekly subscribers will be interested to learn) a facial resemblance - especially when smiling - to the younger Max Teichmann, Mathieu quickly arouses local disgust.

As soon as the camera pans over the school's Auschwitz-like front gate we know that this establishment will be a borstal, or worse. Sure enough, however tame the prevailing mayhem levels are by latter-day US standards, much anarchy manages to be loosed, despite the martinet methods of headmaster Rachin (François Berléand).

Rachin seeks to control with his obsessive militaristic iterations of "Action-Reaction!" - especially after a vicious practical joke almost claims the school janitor's life - but his bullying is so capricious as to be counterproductive.

Eventually several boys (with the beastliness that comes so naturally to the young male) steal Mathieu's briefcase, and find therein some incomplete musical manuscripts.

By this time Mathieu's bald head and absence of conventional authority have made him a figure of student fun. The pupils in their dormitory honk ribald verses about him to the tune of Christmas carol Il est né le divin enfant.

Gradually a grudging respect for Mathieu's fairness (as opposed to Rachin's free-floating choler) emerges, and since this is France - where even yahoos retain a certain vague awe towards intellectual enterprise, as opposed to the Australian adolescent mania for deifying sport - Mathieu eventually cajoles his charges into forming a halfway decent choir, despite unpredictable mishaps on the way. (One child, performing at his audition, bursts into the Pétainist anthem Maréchal nous voilà: an infelicitous choice in postwar circumstances.)

Faced with a boy whose tone-deafness exceeds all bounds, Mathieu hits on the brilliant idea of dispensing with the tone-deafer's vocalism entirely, and appointing him as the music-stand. This tactic deserves passing on to any choral director who happens to be reading the present review.

Les Choristes's predominant atmosphere evokes the tight-lipped, decorous, socially stratified tristesse of Terence Rattigan's best 1940s and 1950s plays.

It is curious to see how the ability to capture such tristesse has disappeared altogether from today's Cool Britannia - "Carpetbagging Britannia" would be a more accurate term - but has somehow survived so well among the French that a first-time director (Christophe Barratier, who also wrote lyrics to the soundtrack's songs) can achieve it without apparent exertion.

A few flaws obtrude. The Countess on whose benefactions the school partly relies (and to whom Rachin thus toadies without shame) is improbably young. Rural French society in 1949 - indeed for decades afterwards - was as gerontocratic as the Chinese Communist Party is still.

Surely, therefore, the Countess would have been a murderous old battleaxe, like Lady Bracknell on steroids, rather than Les Choristes' Dior-clad fashion-plate?

And surely Mathieu's decision to give important solo after important solo to the cherubic-looking boy Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier, now something of a pop star in France) would have inspired far greater resentment among the less gifted choristers than it does here?

These are quibbles. Benefiting from a score by one Bruno Coulois that blends freshly written material with ancient masterpieces (what other motion picture has ever used as its musical climax a chorus by the great 18th-century composer Jean-Philippe Rameau?), Les Choristes further enjoys camera work so assured and downright beautiful that French audiences have flocked to visit the Château de Ravel, where Barratier and his cast filmed.

They know quality when they see it. So should you. Particularly since Barratier has ruled out a sequel: "This movie," he told Associated Press in January, "was very sincere. When you put a No. 2 after it, it's not sincere at all ... It means you want to make money."

  • R. J. Stove

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