Resident musicologist Max DeCurtins re-views one of his favorite French-language films,Les Choristes, and contemplates the state of music education.
Let me begin this re-view by saying that, among all the films I’ve re-viewed for 10YA, Les Choristes probably represents one of the best in raw quality of storytelling. This re-view therefore doesn’t spend much time recapping the storyline. Possibly owing to that fact, I’ve had a really hard time deciding what I actually want to say about the film. Except, of course, that you should see it.
Les Choristes, a film that explores the transformative power of music, naturally invites comparisons to perhaps the only other example of this kind of film that most people can conjure, Mr. Holland’s Opus. While not exactly analogous, they both shine a spotlight on the value of music education, with particular emphasis on the figure of the music educator. Since music educators, as a rule, don’t get an ounce of respect in our society, I appreciate the fact that once every twenty years some creative filmmaker out there musters the courage to make a film celebrating a type of educator stuck with the short end of the stick in a profession that itself has the short end of the stick. In other words, merely by dint of its subject, this film has stuck with me even though I haven’t once watched it in the last ten years. As I’ve remarked in previous re-views of French films, the title Les Choristes loses something in translation; rendered in English as “The Chorus,” the title takes on a subtlety of phrase when translated literally as “The Choristers,” meaning the schoolboys. Because, in the end, the film is really about them.
Les Choristes makes use of an interesting, doubly-framed frame story. Pierre Morhange, one of those rare people who has made a successful career as a classical musician, receives news of the death of his mother Violette and travels home to small-town France. After the funeral, a visitor arrives: Pépinot, a former classmate of Pierre’s from Fond de l’Etang, an oppressive boys’ boarding school, who bears a gift for Pierre from the school’s onetime supervisor, Clement Mathieu. Pépinot produces an old class photo, and as Pierre gazes at it, a favorite passage of mine from Roger Peyrefitte’s novel Les Amitiés Particulières, the story of a highly homoerotic relationship between two boys at a Catholic boarding school, immediately came to mind:
“Ces hommes n’avaient qu’un témoignage en leur faveur et ils l’avaient probablement oublié : c’étaient leurs photographies d’autrefois, encadrées dans le couloir du premier étage. Georges se rappelait tel minois ébouriffé sur un grand col rabattu, tel autre si gentil, si délicat, tel autre au contraire, si effronté, et celui-là qui avait un regard mystérieux. Ces garçons n’existaient plus. Leurs visages avaient été remplacés par ces visages d’hommes, sur lesquels la vie, la laideur, l’uniformité, le rasoir étaient passés.”
“These men had but one testimony in their favor and they’d probably forgotten it: their photos from the past, framed in the hallway of the first floor. Georges recalled such a pretty, ruffled little face atop a large turned-down collar; another so gentle, so delicate; another contrarian, so affronted; and that one there, with a mysterious look. Those boys no longer existed. Their faces had been replaced by the faces of men, over which life, ugliness, uniformity, and the razor had passed.”
The photo is, however, not the gift. The late Clement Mathieu bequeathed the diary of his days as supervisor at Fond de l’Etang to Pépinot, who seems to understand that Mathieu ultimately intended the book for Pierre, the student who took Mathieu’s original gift of musical training and changed his life with it. Pierre and Pépinot enjoy a shared reverie as Pierre reads from the diary; the narrator’s voice then becomes Mathieu’s, and we arrive at the inner framing of the story of Les Choristes.
Clement Mathieu’s diary begins the day he arrives at Fond de l’Etang. The outgoing supervisor, the man whose job Mathieu inherits, paints a picture of misery at the boarding school and flees as fast as he can. Let me pause and reflect for a moment on the fact that I don’t know anything about boarding schools, except that wherever they appear in literature abuse, corruption, and sexual assault usually follow close behind. Nor do I know anything about private religious schools. I grew up attending public schools well-financed by local property taxes, with the properties in question costing, on average, somewhere north of $1.2 million. I attended one of the top public universities in the country, also generously financed, in this case by the state of California (less so these days, but that’s for another re-view). Not until I moved to Boston for graduate school did I finally attend a private educational institution, and admittedly at that point in one’s academic career, the public/private distinction doesn’t really impact much save how the school can spend certain funds and what they have to report and to whom. Needless to say, I’ve never known a school environment as anything less than a fairly liberal setting.
Fond de l’Etang represents the opposite of all that. The director, Rachin, knows nothing about education, resents his occupation, and turns that resentment into a domineering cruelty that he inflicts on the boys and the staff alike. The film sets him up as the primary antagonist, but in my re-view I found that he contributed little tension to the story. He’s an ass, and not much more. Mathieu, unwilling to play by Rachin’s rules, quickly becomes a worthy foil to Rachin early in the film, and he deftly wins favor with the boys by turning their own pranks on them, laughing with them, and above all, respecting them. With this bond between Mathieu and the boys established, Rachin can’t do much to antagonize or disrupt it. The other obvious antagonist, Mondain, plays a temporary role of possibly sociopathic but otherwise typical mouthy teenager, and likewise doesn’t contribute much tension to the story. In reality, Mathieu’s chorus doesn’t face threats from any of these external actors; the real threat comes from within, from the culture of apathy, neglect, and devaluation of education that Rachin has managed to create and enforce through his staff.
Indeed, as often as this repressive culture gives the film serious weight, it sometimes also makes for some seriously sardonic scenes. For example, when Mondain first arrives at Fond de l’Etang, the representative who delivered him describes to Rachin all the tests Mondain’s previous institution has administered to him. This moment immediately takes on a dark humor for any American born since about 1980, because as the rep rattles off the names of different tests, Rachin nods furiously, as if to say “Oh yes, jolly good! The more tests the better!” We know perfectly well, however, that he doesn’t have a fucking clue what any of those tests supposedly measure. Rachin, a raging incompetent, puts blind faith in a bunch of wonks whose policy prescription of tests smacks of incompetence as well. We all know standardized tests. As a barometric indicator of anything but standardized test-taking skills they prove essentially worthless, while wasting immense sums of money and exacting a toll on the well-being of students and teachers alike. It’s both funny and enormously sad.
Besides highlighting things that make us aware of our failing system of education, Les Choristes reminds us of the fact that our stereotypes of boys and the ways we treat them have barely evolved in well over half a century. From the first, Rachin and his staff insist to Mathieu that the boys understand only the policy, sloppily borrowed from Newton’s laws of motion, that every action taken by the boys will have an opposite (and likely unequal) reaction. Luckily, postwar France didn’t have Ritalin, or probably each and every last one of the boys would have his own medication regimen. Rachin clearly sees punishment as something that all boys inherently need; he’s a male Trunchbull with his own version of the Chokey. As a society, we’ve graduated from beating boys into submission simply to drugging them instead.
Fortunately, Les Choristes shows us what can happen when we turn away from this model of thinking, a model that sees boys (and indeed all children) as liabilities that need to acquire the discipline necessary to become an adult, discipline gained through a system of reward and punishment. George Lakoff, a linguist and political scholar, calls this model of parenting—and boarding school staff especially function as surrogate parents—the “Strict Father” model, and besides being a crucial component of Lakoff’s prototypical conservative worldview, it’s also a highly ineffective approach to child-rearing. Mathieu takes a more respectful approach, and while the film’s major plotline turns on whether Mathieu’s investment in Morhange will succeed or fail, it also shows that sometimes breaking the rules, anathema to Rachin and Lakoff’s “Strict Father” model, leads to positive change. Mathieu’s defiance of Rachin, his dedication to providing some form of music education, leads directly to an improved quality of life for the boys. And, toward the end of the film, his decision to take the boys out of school for a day ends up saving all of them from the fire that damages Fond de l’Etang.
As I mentioned in the opening of this re-view, Les Choristes counts as possibly the finest quality film I’ve ever re-viewed for 10YA. It seems to have two layers for everything: two layers of frame story, two narrative strands in third person (one directed at the boys, and the other more personal to Mathieu) inhabiting the same narrative voice, two types of antagonist, two levels of relationship between Mathieu and the boys (one between Mathieu and the chorus, and a more private one between Mathieu and Morhange), two facets to Mathieu’s interactions with Violette (one romantic and one more professional), and two ways to read what the chorus does. On the surface, the chorus acts as an alternative methodology for establishing discipline; this we might call the El Sistema layer—El Sistema being a generously-funded program of Venezuela’s petroregime that subsidizes youth orchestras all over the country as a means, for want of better words, of keeping kids out of trouble. Despite some questionable aspects of its context, El Sistema does produce some fine musicians—Gustavo Dudamel, anyone?—and deserves admiration and emulation. Underneath this layer, Mathieu’s chorus of schoolboys (and its success) fights back against a cultural slant that codes singing—particularly less “mainstream” styles of singing, such as choral music and musicals—as insufficiently masculine behavior. Indeed, the particularities of male singers, whether boy sopranos, adult falsettists, or adult men who sing soprano or countertenor in chest voice (i.e., not in a falsetto), have an undeniable queerness about them. Because deconstructing and analyzing the cultural politics of music would take a whole separate re-view—if not an article or book chapter—I’ll say only that because nearly all of us consume music, the queerness of the male voice proves relatively easy to perceive.
Music history has had a complicated relationship with boys’ voices. The main thing to know is that it is really fucking hard to get boys to produce a sound comparable in polish and tone to one attainable to a trained adult. On account of this and other, secondary sources (pay records, for example), more than a few musicologists have suggested that boys in the 15th through 18th centuries did not actually sing much of music with which they have been credited with singing. The struggle to obtain that unique sound represents perhaps the ultimate biological fool’s errand: even if you can manage to get there, you have but the flash of a few short years before the boy’s voice will break and the sound you worked so hard to craft will disappear forever. With an ever-earlier onset of puberty nowadays, abetted by the preponderance of chemicals now found throughout every area of industrialized life, the phenomenon of the boy soprano seems likely to disappear. This makes it all the more remarkable that Les Choristes features an actual trained soprano, Jean-Baptiste Maunier, in the role of Pierre Morhange (an older actor portrays him in the frame story). His full talents finally make an appearance in the denouement of Les Choristes, which features two verses of a chorus from the opera Hippolyte et Aricie by Jean-Philippe Rameau, an early 18th century composer, extracted and arranged over a century later by Joseph Noyon. Rather than discuss this music, I will instead conclude this re-view by leaving you faithful 10YA readers with lyrics and a link to YouTube. Of this final performance, Mathieu remarks in his narration (at the end of the clip): “In Morhange’s eyes, which carefully followed my every gesture, I read all at once a multitude of things: pride, the joy of having been pardoned, but also something truly new for him—a feeling of recognition, of belonging.”
Ô Nuit ! Viens apporter à la terre
Le calme enchantement de ton mystère.
L’ombre qui t’escorte est si douce,
Si doux est le concert de tes voix
Si grand est ton pouvoir transformant tout
en rêve heureux.
(O Night! Come, spread across the earth
The calm enchantment of your mystery.
Sweet is the shadow that accompanies you,
Sweet is the concert of your voices
How great is your power, transforming all
in a happy dream.)
Ô Nuit ! Ô laisse encore à la terre
Le calme enchantement de ton mystère.
L’ombre qui t’escorte est si douce,
Est-il une beauté aussi belle que le rêve ?
Est-il de vérité plus douce que l’espérance ?
(O Night! Let stay yet upon on the earth
The calm enchantment of your mystery.
Sweet is the shadow that accompanies you;
Is there any beauty greater than the dream?
Is there any truth sweeter than hope?)
Morhange’s mother’s name is Violette, the French equivalent of the Italian Violetta, and it’s noted that she’s not like the other boys’ mothers—namely, she’s young and beautiful, and the implication here is that she had something of a freewheeling young adulthood, which came to an end with the arrival of Pierre. In a movie about music, I can’t help but read this as a clear reference to La Traviata; thankfully, Les Choristes spares us any run-in with the libiamochorus.
Almost immediately upon his arrival at Fond de l’Etang, Mathieu gets the nickname crâne d’obus, “Baldy.” As someone who experienced significant hair loss in his early twenties, I can only hope that in my middle age I will own my image as well as Mathieu does.