In the past few years, the North American market has worked up quite the appetite for foreign language films. Many of these, with their critical and commercial success, received prestigious film awards. Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful won the Oscar for Best Actor, a first ever for a non-English speaking role. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, nominated for Best Picture, was a box-office smash. The film enjoyed pop-culture status as its title became the subject of tireless parody. Amélie, nominated for five Academy Awards, thrilled critics and audiences with its breadth of imagination.
With this year's Academy Awards ceremony nearly two weeks away, North American audiences will flock to the theatres to check out the nominated films, especially those in the Best Foreign Language Film category. One film in that category is France's The Chorus.
Set in post-wwii France, it's the story of Clément Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot), a failed composer/musician. He takes a position as supervisor at a boarding school for troubled boys, run by an abusive man named Rachin (François Berléand). One evening, Clément overhears the boys singing and impressed with their talent, decides to start a student choir. Over time, the music provides a better quality of life for the boys and the liberating quality of choral music softens Rachin's oppressive tactics.
Like the aforementioned films, The Chorus received its share of accolades. Nominated for a Golden Globe; and Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Song for "Look to Your Path (Vois Sur Ton Chemin)" the film might satisfy North America's craving for foreign language film. Unfortunately, The Chorus is not that filling.
The movie is a saccharine-suffused film with the traditional good and evil battle thrown into the mix. While pleasant, the film lacks the depth fellow French film Amélie possesses. It skims the surface on character development, with audiences knowing nothing about Clément's life prior to his arrival at the school, except his failing as a composer/musician.
In fact, Clément initially tries to conceal his past association with music. Some students steal his briefcase and discover sheet music, unsure of what the papers really mean. When Clément finds the thieves with his property, the students ask about the sheet music, to which he replies, "None of your business." If there had been any mention of the reasons why he wanted to hide that past, audiences would have a better understanding of Clément's attitudes towards choral music and his ambition to start a choir.
As well, The Chorus is unrealistic regarding the boys' musical development. Within a couple of weeks, they sound like a professional youth choir (The children in the film don't actually sing; the vocals are provided by the children of a Lyon-based choir, the Little Singers of St. Marc). The film rushes through the music learning process, without exploring the children's struggle in learning the music or Clément's methods of teaching it. The film prefers the end product over the progress achieving it. Any examination of the learning process would have added more appeal to the music.
The North American market has its way of romanticizing foreign language films. The geographical separation between Hollywood and the countries in which these films are made creates assumed artistic and ideological differences. Foreign language cinema is the antithesis of the sex, drug and violence-laden world of American film. Because of the outstanding foreign language films coming out in the past few years, we've come to expect these films to be better than anything from Hollywood. Unfortunately, for The Chorus, the buzz surrounding it misrepresents the film's quality.