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February 26, 2005

French choirboys are too rude for Oscar

Daily Telegraph (UK):

It is enough to confirm the deepest of Gallic conspiracy theories about the English-speaking world. At a time when France is, politically at least, back on speaking terms with the United States and Britain the delicate rapprochement is under threat from a spat over a film. The ensuing clash of cultures has left the French baffled and dismayed at the treatment being handed out to Les Choristes (The Chorus), the country's most successful film since Amélie. The film, which is up for awards in tonight's Césars ceremony in Paris and tomorrow's Oscars, where it is in contention for best foreign film and for best song, is a clichéd but life-enhancing story of how reform school louts are transformed into a choir by a gifted teacher played by Gérard Jugnot.

But its heart-warming theme has failed to sway Anglophone classification bureaucrats. Should the younger members of the cast want to see their own film in the English-speaking world they might be in for a surprise. To the dismay of the French government and film industry, America's Motion Picture Association (MPAA) has slapped a PG-13 certificate on the film, meaning that parents are "strongly cautioned" that some material may be inappropriate for under-13s. The choice in the US is left to parents. In Britain, where Les Choristes comes out on March 11, an even stricter rating has been imposed. Children under 12 can see it only if accompanied by an adult.

French critics believe the classifications will unjustly hamper the chances of Christophe Barratier's low-budget film making an impact on Anglo-Saxon audiences to match its huge success at home, where it was passed for universal viewing. The ministry of culture in Paris insists that it is for "each country to make its own decision on classification – our government doesn't make films". However, The Telegraph understands that high-level representations have been made about the PG-13 certificate in America which could lead to a review by a ratings appeal board.

In France, 8.6 million people have seen Les Choristes and 1.3 million have bought the music. Children sing along to the soundtrack while choral societies have seen a surge in membership since its release. To French audiences, who have marvelled at the story of disadvantaged children being given hope to triumph over a bleak start in life, the classifications seem perverse. They are based chiefly on the sub-titled lyrics of two songs, one a playground chant mocking the headmaster with the help of a swear word and the other a rude reference to masturbation sung by the class's most incorrigible lout before being told to shut up. The assessors may also have taken account of a suggestion that a PT teacher was a child molester and a brief scene of corporal punishment.

In America, the MPAA decision refers to "some language/sexual references and violence", while the British Board of Film Classification mentions only "moderate sex references".

"It comes down to some boys singing a vulgar song," said Thierry Maunier, whose son, Jean-Baptiste, 14, has been turned into a superstar by his angelic singing and blue-eyed good looks. "The decision is unbelievable." His son, who until recently sang in Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc, a children's choir in his native Lyons, agrees. "It is so unjust," he said yesterday. "Our film shows boys from deprived backgrounds at a hard school in 1949 talking like such boys would. But children see plenty of American films with bad words and violent special effects."

The importance to French cinema of gaining an international audience is illustrated by Amélie, which enjoyed similar success as Les Choristes in France but has now been seen by 23 million people worldwide. French cinema-goers remain perplexed. One Parisian mother whose nine-year-old daughter knows the film's choral recitals by heart, said: "My children titter a bit at the swear words but it really is the most innocent film. For them, and especially my daughter, it's about the music and the boy star."

"It's nonsense," said Camille Le Gall, who runs a Francophone web blog, La Gazette New-Yorkaise, in America. "Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby has bad language and some really fierce scenes by comparison with Les Choristes and also got a PG-13 language. "But the industry is wrong if it thinks the film's chances in the States will be affected because of the rating. The reason American kids won't see it is that they don't want to confront a film with sub-titles."

Posted by acapnews at February 26, 2005 12:24 AM