We all had that one inspirational teacher who turned the lights on upstairs. And maybe that's why we're suckers for movies like The Chorus, which follows the template laid down by everything from Goodbye, Mr. Chips to Dead Poets Society, To Sir With Love to Coach Carter, Going My Way to School of Rock. Set in provincial France right after World War II, The Chorus is perhaps closest to Mr. Holland's Opus, wherein a high school band leader finally realizes that working with kids is more important than the musical career he really wasn't talented enough to have anyway. The kids learn how to dream. The band leader learns how to quit dreaming. And the rest of us get out our handkerchiefs.
I had mine out during The Chorus, even daubed my eyes with it a couple of times, but not until the end did I feel like the movie was tugging rather than plucking on my heartstrings. And part of the reason for that is actor Gerard Jugnot, who, unlike Richard Dreyfuss, seems congenitally incapable of indulging in schmaltz. One fine day in 1949, Jugnot's Clement Mathieu arrives at Fond de l'Etang, a concentration camp posing as a boy's reformatory. Even the name of the place, Rock Bottom, suggests that all who enter should abandon hope. But Monsieur Mathieu sees a way around the school's unruly students and harsh discipline. He will form a choir.
Oh, for the days when that might have done the trick. And The Chorus is, in part, an exercise in nostalgia, framed as it is by scenes in which, 50 years later, two of the students, one of them now an internationally prominent conductor, look back on their Dickensian childhood. Pepinot (Maxence Perrin plays the child) was the school's holy innocent, waiting by the gate for parents who would never come. And Pierre (Jean-Baptiste Maunier plays the child) was the holy terror. At least, that's what we're told; he doesn't seem so bad to me, only sullen. Anyway, he turns out to have an angelic voice. And the movie hinges on whether Monsieur Mathieu will succeed is using music to soothe the savage beast. Shall I give you three guesses?
We all know the drill, of course ' pranks, punishment, auditions, performance, cruel headmaster (FranÃois Berleand) finally getting his just deserts. And although The Chorus falls into step a little too easily, it has just enough of its own personality to keep us interested ' the setting, for one thing, a run-down chateau in which the paint peels away with the years. And, of course, Jugnot, who, by doing nothing flashy to win us over, wins us over, the very same strategy that works for Monsieur Mathieu. One might have hoped for more from the country that brought us 400 Blows, FranÃois Truffaut's hard-nosed yet softhearted look at a delinquent juvenile. But 400 Blows didn't break all the box-office records in France last year. HÃlas.