There’s a bit of slyness going on in The Chorus, which, on the surface, is a formulaic inspirational teacher tale in the tradition of The Blackboard Jungle and Goodbye Mr. Chips — the "dedicated teacher overcomes resistance and inspires students to excel" theme. But the name of the school in The Chorus is "Fond de L’Etang," figuratively "Rock Bottom," so it is clear from the start that writer/director Christophe Barratier has tongue planted firmly in cheek. The film is a fairy tale, meant to be a fable, not intended as the straightforward realism of, say, Blackboard Jungle, although these French delinquents are every bit as difficult as Glen Ford’s hoodlums, even if they do speak French.
Mild-mannered Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot) arrives to take a teaching position and finds a school where, despite a rigid disciplinarian of a principal, the staff has been terrified by the rowdy, unmanageable, often violent behavior of the students. Mathieu, the very model of patience and dedication, uses kindness, humor, and warmth, along with his interest in music to convert the unruly rabble into an angelic choir singing Rameau.
Mathieu, the principal, and a variety of the students are archetypes of stock roles, built to the formula and deliberately so. What Barratier manages to accomplish is to make fun of the genre while transcending it, engaging the audience with appealing characters, the charm of the youngsters, and the beauty of the music, particularly the purity of sound produced by the boy soprano, Morhange, sung by young singer/actor Jean-Baptiste Maunier.
Barratier fills out his roster with other mini-portraits, all continuing in the context of archetypes–Morhange’s beautiful mother who fills Mathieu with romantic hopes, the patron Countess who oozes noblesse oblige as she presides like royalty over a concert by the choir, and little Pepinot, who waits at the school gate every Saturday, expecting his parents to arrive and take him away. And, as fairy tales are required to do, the film casts any semblance of believability aside in order to come up with an ending in which the good are rewarded and the bad are suitably punished.
Without the gently satirical edge, The Chorus would have been a cloying cliche of a film. Barratier’s clever use of irony to frame his story and his characters allows him both to use and to comment upon the underlying formula. It’s a risky approach, but he pulls it off with charm and panache.