Singing into the hearts of the French

Aug. 2, 2004, midnight | By Nora Boedecker | 19 years, 11 months ago

The feel-good masterpiece Les Choristes takes France by storm

Most Americans think that French movies are just talk, sex and cigarettes. This summer, however, the most popular movie in France has no sex, no smoking and not much talking. Instead, there is singing.

Les Choristes, which translates into "The Choir-boys," is an old-fashioned, family film set in post-World War II France. Since it opened in March 2004, it has sold more than 6.7 million movie tickets, according to the European information source Expatica, outselling even the recently-opened Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

The story of Les Choristes is nothing revolutionary: A teacher, Clément Mathieu, played by Gérard Jugnot, begins a new job at a strict school for troubled boys where the strict disciplinary motto is "action, reaction." Slowly, Mathieu manages to change the tone of the school and the lives of the boys by teaching them choral music, against the wishes of antagonist headmaster Rachin.

It is undoubtedly the music in this film that sets it apart from all others. The angelic, a capella choral music, some of which was composed specifically for the film, is spectacular. The soundtrack has sold more than 500,000 copies, according to Expatica, and is hummed all over the country. The popularity of this film was so great that it actually fueled a new choral music movement in France.

The acting in the film was also superb, if somewhat overshadowed by the music. Gérard Jugnot's Mathieu is humble, smart, likeable and believable. Short and round and with a kind face, Jugnot makes the perfect protagonist. Thirteen-year-old Jean-Baptiste Maunier plays young Pierre Morhange, a boy with "the face of an angel but the character of the devil." As it turns out, Morhange not only has the face of an angel, but the voice of one too, and it is through music that Mathieu reforms his character, which turns out to be not so devilish, just misunderstood. Maunier gives an excellent performance, especially as this film marks his first foray into acting, a field he did not originally want to pursue. He makes the character of Morhange real--faulted, but completely believable.

Aside from the enchanting music and impressive acting, Les Choristes has a certain undeniable charm. It is thoroughly satisfying and touching, without becoming overly sappy or silly. Unlike most of today's blockbusters, there is little romance, no action and not any kind of adventure. There is no suspense or twist and no surprise ending. Les Choristes pulls on every heartstring and leaves the audience completely satisfied and happy.

Time will only tell how Les Choristes will be received in the U.S. when it opens at the end of this year. Hopefully, though, American audiences will be as receptive as the French and appreciate the film for what it is--an exploration of the power of music to lift even the most downtrodden hearts.

Nora Boedecker. Nora Boedecker wants to be more like Eve when she grows up. More »

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