2004, PG-13, 96 min. Directed by Christophe Barratier. Starring Gérard Jugnot, Francois Berléand, Jacques Perrin, Jean-Baptiste Maunier, Marie Bunel, Jean-Paul Bonnaire, Kad Merad, Phillipe Du Janerand.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., May 20, 2005
A box-office smash in its native France and the winner of an Audience Award at the 2004 Austin Film Festival, this kindly and spirited film doesn’t exactly break the mold of the heartwarming, humanistic boarding-school dramedy (it plays like French Singing Boys’ Society but is actually a remake of a 1945 production, La Cage aux Rossingols), though it fits there comfortably enough. The main attraction is the music by Bruno Coulais (with lyrics by director Barratier); the choral composition "Look to Your Path (Vois Sur Ton Chemin)" was nominated for an Oscar in the Original Song category along with those peppy selections from Glen Ballard and Adam Duritz. The music – sung by the Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc Choir – is indeed lovely, even if Barratier’s lyrics are awkward when translated to English (something about a gull lighting on the sea and the breath of winter), and the acting is fine, and these two qualities distinguish the film somewhat. The broad-faced, jug-eared Jugnot, who’s something of a stranger stateside, is of course the Different Sort of Teacher newly arrived at Fond de L’etang, the kind of school "for troubled children" whose instructors chase short-pantsed ragamuffins through mahogany-paneled stairwells, shouting, "I’m going to give you the flogging of your life!" We know the new prefect has had his own disappointments in the past – a satchel full of his musical compositions, never performed, attests to this – and that he’ll find something to believe in again. But his administration (Bérleand as a corrupt, careerist headmaster) will of course balk at his methods, and he’ll be lucky to remain employed. You might expect a romantic complication with a pupil’s parent, and you might expect a particularly gifted child to rise above his circumstances. In an odd curveball, an older boy labeled "a gregarious pervert" and "a mythomaniac" is admitted to the program, as there seem to be no particular standards for enrollment or for the curriculum, but otherwise Les Choristes sticks to the script. Fortunately, Barratier is generous with his actors, particularly the young ones, so the film is enjoyable enough from moment to moment. Maxence Perrin (son of French matinee hero Jacques Perrin, who produces here) is the requisite sad-eyed moppet, and Jean-Baptiste Maunier, as the particularly gifted child slated to rise above his circumstances, makes an impression with his camera-ready cheekbones and angelic voice. (Evidently "JB" is something of a Gallic teen idol and has released his own CD in Europe, making him to Les Choristes what Lauryn Hill was to Sister Act 2.) There’s nothing terribly wrong here, and you’d have to be a thoroughly calcified cynic to be unmoved by the inevitably heartwarming conclusion. But the film is still a refresher course in a lesson we’ve all seen; it seems strangely appropriate for it to hit town a week after its distributor, Miramax, launched the DVD nationally.