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School of Bach

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A coach/teacher/Reno lounge singer walks into a gym/classroom/convent filled with unmotivated athletes/students/nuns and, through his/her compassion and the irrefutable power of sport/learning/song, transforms the washouts into winners. From Goodbye, Mr. Chips to Hoosiers to Sister Act to Mr. Holland’s Opus, the inspirational-mentor genre is as undying a cinematic perennial as the disaster movie. I for one am merely biding my time until the inevitable hybridization — the tale of a dedicated high school teacher and his class of calculus prodigies who, during the onset of a second ice age, walk from Philadelphia to Manhattan in order to attend a math competition. In the meantime, this weekend brings us not one, but two, new releases pitched at those who may feel the need for a little wind beneath their wings: Coach Carter, in which Samuel L. Jackson’s title character bars his star athletes from playing basketball until they improve their GPAs, and The Chorus, a French import that suggests what Richard Linklater’s School of Rock might have been like if Jack Black showed up playing Handel instead of AC/DC.

After breaking box-office records in France last year (besting all other local productions, and nearly all Hollywood movies too), The Chorus has made the rounds of the international film festivals (where it picked up a number of audience awards), and is now getting a healthy promotional push from its American distributor, Miramax, which clearly sees in it the potential for a crossover hit. That’s smart thinking, for The Chorus is the kind of foreign film, like Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino and Amélie before it, that doesn’t seem foreign at all to most audiences, because it speaks in a language that obliterates the need for subtitling — that of the sentimental cliché.

Set primarily in 1949, The Chorus follows kindly music teacher Clément Matthieu (Gérard Jugnot), as he arrives at a boys’ reformatory and, before the semester is out, manages to turn his class of unruly wastrels into a well-behaved chorus of heavenly voices. En route, he finds plenty of time for contretemps with a fussbudget headmaster (François Berléand) and flirtation with the beautiful mother of one of his students, before arriving at the inevitable discovery that his heretofore most undisciplined pupil also possesses the most angelic voice in the class. Beyond this, there are lots of cute kids and even a Spielbergian framing device in which two former members of Matthieu’s chorus (one of them now a professional musician) reminisce nostalgically about their childhood days.

So what’s not to like? Don’t get me wrong: As the son of a primary-school educator with some four decades of service under her belt, I am hardly averse to the idea that one teacher really can make a difference. But I would also argue that the process by which such things happen is rarely (if ever) as simple (or simple-minded) as most movies about teachers suggest. And The Chorus is among the more simple-minded of the bunch. Even in the midst of an entertainment as infectious as School of Rock, though, it’s hard to escape from the underlying notion that all kids are special and talented and just waiting for the right person to unlock their potential — a corrosive lie beautifully refuted by The Incredibles with its conviction that some of us are meant to excel while the rest of us should learn to embrace our mediocrity.

The Chorus isn’t as guilty a pleasure as School of Rock — its director, Christophe Barratier, lacks Linklater’s willingness to subvert at least some of our expectations — but it gets surprising mileage from the sensitive performance of Jugnot, a fine French comedian with an inordinately round face and uncertain gestures that suggest a child at play in a man’s body. And if I stop short of calling the movie good, that’s not to say it doesn’t come as something of a relief after countless Luc Besson spectacles, the pomposity of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement, and other, equally disreputable things that pass as popular French cinema nowadays. The Chorus is sham art and questionable entertainment, but at the very least it sends you whistling out of the theater.

THE CHORUS | Directed by CHRISTOPHE BARRATIER | Written by BARRATIER and PHILIPPE LOPES-CURVAL, inspired by the film A CAGE OF NIGHTINGALES, written by NOEL-NOEL, RENE WHEELER and GEORGES CHAPEROT | Produced by JACQUES PERRIN, ARTHUR COHN and NICOLAS MAUVERNAY | Released by Miramax Films | At selected theaters


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