Dead ‘Chorus’ Society

Some film genres are prewritten. For instance, there is only one sports/academic/music story in all of popular film: a down-on-his-or-her-luck coach/professor/musician teaches a group of ragtag athletes/students/musicians to band together, and in the end they win the big contest. In the lively French import “Les Choristes” (The Chorus), a failed musician (comedian Gèrard Jugnot) enters the dismal world of a boys boarding school run by a Draconian schoolmaster with a penchant for violence (Francois Berlèand) and teaches the downtrodden boys self respect by forming them into a choir.

Yet despite the cookie-cutter plot, “Les Choristes” is a beautiful example of pure storytelling. Weaving the stories of the different children into an honest tapestry, director/producer/composer Christophe Barratier’s first autobiographical film is a gentle drama that has endeared itself to audiences in Europe and single-handedly caused a revival in the popularity of choral music. Now, poised to charm the socks off of American audiences as well with his film’s Jan. 28 release, Barratier shared a few insights with the Guardian:

G: Now, since this film is autobiographical, do you identify more with the teacher or the student?

B: I think very much with the student, but there is a little bit of me in a lot of characters. I was separated from my parents for five years. At this time, I was very angry at my mother, because she [put me in a boarding school], so the reaction between Pierre Morhange [the lead soprano character] and his mother is the one I felt. Of course there is a little bit of me in Clement Mathieu [the teacher], but I left music when I was 23; [it was] a really good decision for me. So Clement Mathieu is a bit more fiction, of course; it’s the kind of hero I like. I mean, we suppose that they are losers, but they will discover in themselves a strength that we did not believe the first time [we saw them].

G: The actor who played Mathieu, Gèrard Jugnot, is a comedian. Is he known for these lovable underdog characters?

B: No, he’s very well known for popular comedy. He was considered the goofy one, you know? Everybody thinks he’s very funny, but I think for the first time, he is recognized (at least in France) as a great actor. It’s very similar to what has been done for Robin Williams with “Dead Poets Society.”

G: From what I hear, the soundtrack of this film is also doing very well.

B: Yes, it’s a huge success in France. It was number one on the charts for nine months. It has been a little bit of an earthquake in the recording industry. Of course, at the beginning, [we were told] that this type of boys’ choir music would not be a success.

G: Now, is the soundtrack all original music, or are they traditional choral songs?

B: No, no, there is 95 percent original music, only one piece of music in the church is something by [another composer], everything else is original.

G: Now, what about the politics of the film, the “action-reaction” of the schoolmaster versus Mathieu’s gentler way with the boys?

B: That’s the way it was in my boarding school, you know — “action-reaction.” The headmaster of my boarding school was always saying that kind of thing. He was exactly like that, always shouting, always unhappy, always depressed, always wanting to punish, you know? He was an awful man, the headmaster of my old boarding school. And the relationship between the teacher and the student is more of my imagination really, because all of the teachers in my school were very afraid.

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