The cinematic equivalent of filtered water, The Chorus is all smooth, nutrient-free clichés. This shamelessly globalized French Oscar submission even opens with a shot of an American flag—perhaps an unconscious declaration of defeat for importable Gallic cinema. Just before giving a concert in New York, a prominent conductor (Winged Migration auteur Jacques Perrin) is informed of the death of his mother. Upon his return to France, he and an old school chum inexplicably decide to recall 1949 at Fond de l’Étang (“Rock Bottom”), an institution for orphans and troubled boys where a gifted Mr. Holland/Mr. Chips type helped to put their lives on track. Introduced with a soundtrack yowl that might have been composed by the Tim Burton Glee Club, Fond de l’Étang is half prep school, half Shawshank. Teachers’ quarters resemble unwashed men’s rooms. The headmaster’s motto is “action, reaction,” and corporal punishment is the law of the land—even the cross-eyed, curly-haired moppet (a seeming prerequisite for Miramax acquisitions) is subject to reprimand.
Too lead-footed to imagine a kid’s-eye view of adolescence, an oblique nod to Jean Vigo notwithstanding, director Christophe Barratier instead contrives to focus on the teacher himself. A doormat named Clément Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot), this magic maestro once studied at a conservatory but never hit it big. Naturally, the children rekindle his passion: They may only have practice singing paeans to farting—and, in a hint of a subtext otherwise unaddressed, a hymn to Pétain—but under Mathieu’s tutelage they’ll soon be belting a choral selection that will stick in your head for days. (Not, in this instance, a good thing.) Mathieu’s favorite (Jean-Baptiste Maunier) has the voice of a Broadway understudy—and a conveniently attractive single mother to boot. Grumbling about how he never wanted to be a teacher, the vicious headmaster (François Berléand) is at first wary, then jealous, then exploitative of Mathieu’s success. But as they prove in the closer, the children, at least, remain infinitely grateful to their tutor. Music is one universal language. Pandering is another.