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January 21, 2005

Choral movie hopes for an Oscar

Associated Press:

PARIS - One is tone-deaf, another a sneering troublemaker, part of a motley crew of young boys that hardly seems made for stardom. But their bell-like voices are the soul of a Cinderella story that has swept French cinemas, surprising critics and the director himself. "The Chorus," or "Les Choristes," could have been just another quaint portrait of postwar France. But the film, a testament to the transforming powers of music, has struck a deep chord among moviegoers here and turned the young stars - none professional actors - into household names.

There are no car chases, no violence and no steamy encounters in "The Chorus," director Christophe Barratier's first feature-length film. Set in 1949, it is the story of an out-of-work musician who takes a job as supervisor of a boarding school for troubled boys in the French countryside, and works magic through song. Special effects there are, but of a different sort: The voices of the Little Singers of St. Marc, a Lyon chorus that sang for the movie and is now touring France to full houses. Their soundtrack is at the top of French music charts. Critics were less than enthusiastic when the movie came out in France last March. By year's end they conceded that "The Chorus" was a national phenomenon. "It's the success of the year, but also the mystery," the daily Le Monde wrote in its Jan. 1 edition.

The movie led the list of France's box office successes in 2004, outshining the comebacks of the lovable Shrek and the magical Harry Potter and belying its modest US$5.5 million budget. It has been sold in scores of countries. The DVD and video of the film have sold 2.1 million copies since their release in October, a French record, according to the movie magazine Ecran Total. An even more telling sign of the film's success may be that in France, choir music has become cool. Opening across the United States on Jan. 24, "The Chorus" is France's candidate for an Oscar in the category of Best Foreign Film. Oscar nominations are to be announced Jan. 25.

Barratier, who co-wrote the scenario with Philippe Lopes-Curval, concurs that the movie's success is phenomenal - "even extravagant" - and says there is no single explanation. "If I could answer, I could do it again," he said in a telephone interview from New York where he was promoting the movie with Miramax. But the director said the movie seems to have a "universal force." Barratier said he has traveled to some 20 countries and "the public reacts exactly in the same way everywhere." "You don't have the impression of being French. You really have the impression of belonging to the whole world," Barratier said.

The young boys have endeared filmgoers, from tone-deaf Corbain to the troublemaker Mondain or Morhange - the angel-faced soprano played by Jean-Baptiste Maunier. The 14-year-old is the film's revelation, and newly anointed teen idol in France. Gerard Jugnot, a leading French actor, plays the down-and-out musician Clement Mathieu who quietly stands up to the despotic school director (Francois Berleand). Against all odds, he transmits his musical savoir-faire to his troubled charges. Tourists are making pilgrimages to the place where the film is set - Chateau de Ravel, in central France's Auvergne region. "We kept the name of the school in the movie over the main gate, and everybody is thrilled to get their picture taken in front of it," Etienne Brochot, co-owner of the property, said by telephone.

Local choirs are having a heyday. In the past, "choral singing was not a so-called virile activity," said Bernard Lallement of the Association of Choir Directors for the Paris region. "It was better to play soccer than dare confess that you sang in a choir." Last year saw a 15 percent increase nationwide in children signing up for choirs, according to Thierry Thiebaut, director of a federation of 600 choral groups, "A Coeur Joie" (With a Joyful Heart). Demand is up 30 percent in the Lyon area, home of the choir featured in the movie.

"The Chorus" is inspired by a forgotten 1945 film "La Cage aux Rossignols" (The Cage of Nightingales), by Jean Dreville. But Barratier said it was his own painful childhood that provided the real grist for his movie. He said he was "exactly" like the children shown in the film. After enrolling in a country school after his parents' divorce, he said he became "very depressed, very timid, very solitary." A music teacher "transformed my life." Will there be a sequel? "Out of the question," Barratier says. "This movie was very sincere. When you put a No. 2 after it, it's not sincere at all. ... It means you want to make money."

Watch a clip of the movie here

Posted by acapnews at January 21, 2005 12:04 AM