Christophe Barratier: The Catharsis of The Chorus

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When Christophe Barratier wrote The Chorus (Les Choristes), he knew he was incorporating much of his past into the script. But he didn’t realize he was also penning his future. To the astonishment of this novice French director, his very first feature film has made him into an overnight celebrity—much like one of the characters in his film. And, now, with a mid-January U.S. release and an Oscar buzz, Barratier is poised on the brink of stardom. It’s the kind of success seasoned directors dream about, and first-time directors don’t dare imagine.

“It’s hallucinatory,” Barratier says. “An earthquake. I’m not exactly a well-known director or musician, and we haven’t done the kind of marketing that usually goes into a major film. So it wasn’t expected at all.” The irony is that Barratier has always avoided the kind of movies that typically bring celebrity, instead drifting toward auteur films portent with meaning.

“I don’t like blockbuster films, and I also don’t want to engage in marketing to please the entire planet,” he says, at home in Paris. “That bores me. I’m looking for that third voice. I want to make quality films about challenging subjects and still reach people.”

A trained classical guitarist, Barratier, 40, won several international competitions after studying at the acclaimed Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris. He played professionally for several years then, in 1991, joined Galatée films, where he trained under his uncle, renowned actor, producer and writer Jacques Perrin. He eventually became an associate producer and worked together with Perrin on the acclaimed films Children of Lumière, Microcosmos, Himalaya and Winged Migration.

Prior to The Chorus, Barratier directed just one short film, in 2001. Starring Lambert Wilson and Carole Weiss, Les Tombales was inspired by a short story written by French literary giant, Guy de Maupassant. The film premiered at the Clermont-Ferrand Festival and was later broadcast on two French television stations.

Although he’s a new director, Barratier grew up surrounded by the film industry. His grandparents and parents were all actors, so theatre and cinema were the topic du jour around the dinner table. Barratier’s mother, Eva Simonet, has more than a dozen film credits to her name. And, of course, there’s his uncle, who was one of the producers on The Chorus. “Yes, of course that helps,” Barratier says, his Gallic shrug almost coming through. “But if I hadn’t been convincing, if the story hadn’t been good, he would never have produced it.”

The film’s success, he insists, has far more to do with what the movie communicates than who made it. “It’s a very personal story,” he says. “It’s an old-fashioned French story, and a good story, about music and its power—something that everyone loves. But what’s interesting about cinema is that it’s not about giving the public something they already love, but something that they could love … It’s not about meeting people where they’re at, but creating the desire.”

And love it, they do. Released in Europe last March, The Chorus outsold Harry Potter at the French box office. The film’s soundtrack, which features choral music written by leading French film composer Bruno Coulais, has been number one across the French charts. And all over the country, young people are clamoring to join choruses for the first time. “The film has made choral singing fashionable,” says Jean-Francois Duchamp, of the Federation of Petits Chanteurs, in a recent interview with the French press. “It has succeeded in winning over young people who had no previous musical culture.”

It has also created what Barratier calls a “revolution” in French cinema. “The film has shown people that it’s enough to have a good story, good actors and to work hard on the script for something to work,” he says. “You don’t need to spend a huge amount of money to make good films. It’s not about big budget versus small budget. It’s about good film versus bad. That’s all there is. For this reason, The Chorus came as a breath of fresh air for many.”

Barratier was inspired by a little-known French film entitled La Cage aux Rossignols (The Cage of Nightingales), directed by Jean Dréville in 1945, about a young teacher who starts a choral group in a home for delinquent boys. “It was the combination of music and childhood that drew me to that film,” he says. “I had seen it as a boy and there were two main things that stayed with me—the emotion produced by the children’s voices and the inspiration of a failed musician who tries, in spite of everything, to transform the world around him.”

The Chorus tells the story of world-class conductor Pierre Morhange, who opens his door to a man he barely recognizes, named Pépinot. Pépinot brings Pierre a strange gift—the diary of Clément Mathieu, their former teacher. As the two men remember their past, they are transported back to Fond de l’Etang (literally, “rock bottom”), the school for rebellious boys they both attended. Run by the dictatorial Rachin (Franois Berléand), Fond de l’Etang is a place where hope dies under the hands of frustrated instructors who resort to corporal punishment at the first sign of trouble. Boys like Pépinot, an orphan, wait in vain for their parents to come, while others, like Pierre, search for purpose with little guidance.

When a new teacher, Clément Mathieu, arrives, he’s discouraged by the school’s climate, but manages to convince the director to allow a choral group. Then Clément sets about teaching the boys to sing. Gérard Jugnot, a popular French actor with more than 75 features to his credit, plays the role of Clément. Although few know Jugnot outside France, Barratier never considered anyone else for the part. “Gérard has uncanny instincts,” he says, “and I wanted his input from the start. In fact, he introduced me to my co-writer Philippe Lopes-Curval, with whom he had recently written a film.”

Jugnot, on the other hand, had his doubts about a remake of La Cage aux Rossignols. “I was worried that if it was a modern film, it would be about a guy who teaches inner-city kids to rap,” he says. “It could have wound up being very corny. But instead, Christophe was very smart. By setting the story in the psychologically rich post-War period, yet also bringing one scene into the present through Pépinot and Morhange, he shows how the past can have a strong effect on where our lives are now.” Morhange, Jugnot explains, has forgotten Clément, and yet he owes his success to this man—something he doesn’t think about until he delves into his past.

Barratier opted to set The Chorus in 1949 because, he says, it was a time when many children were orphaned, abandoned or reeling from the terrors of enemy occupation and economic hardship brought on by World War II. Schools like Fond de l’Etang were part of a state-run network of correctional houses where delinquent, homeless and even rebellious children often landed.

“This era was the very beginning of a sort of official child psychology, with all the consequences that can involve,” Barratier says. “Psychological profiling was done on many children in what was a well-intentioned desire to oversee them. These methods, which are shown in the film, are certainly problematic to us today. But it’s important to remember the late forties was a period of trauma. We were just coming out of the war and, as in all periods of crisis, parents had many other things to deal with in addition to bringing up their children.”

Over and above these socio-political and historical issues, Barratier was also working through some personal issues. “I had been unconsciously walking around with this story inside me for a long time,” he says. “Writing the script was good therapy in a way, allowing me some closure on my own childhood, which wasn’t unhappy, but which was, at times, very difficult.”

Barratier’s parents divorced when he was an infant. Soon after, his mother left him in the care of his grandmother in the French countryside, while she pursued her film career in Paris. “I attended a school that very much resembles the one in the film,” Barratier says. “I was shy and somewhat intimidated by the other students. And I have strong memories of waiting for my father to come see me at school, which is why I created the character of Pépinot, who waits for his father every Saturday. But, like him, my father never came. But I guess that’s fortunate, because I was able to include it in the film.”

Unsurprisingly, Barratier had his own Clément Mathieu—a music teacher in the village where he lived, who introduced him to classical guitar. “He wasn’t anyone famous or a renowned musician,” Barratier says. “But he had so many qualities that, for me, were enormous. It’s thanks to him that I became someone. He had confidence in me, and even managed to give me a little superiority complex, vis-à-vis the other students.” Barratier laughs and, suddenly, a burst of joy erupts. “We had a father-son relationship, much like the one between Pierre and Clément Matthieu,” he says, “and I’m quite sure that he is smiling.”

Barratier’s real father has stayed on the outskirts of his life, and their relationship remains strained. “I think he’s proud, but also perhaps overwhelmed by the film’s success—something that he never achieved during his years in the industry,” he says. “But we haven’t really talked about it. We don’t see each other very much.”

Barratier’s mother, on the other hand, has joined forces with her son to promote The Chorus. “The relationship between Pierre and his mother is very close to my relationship with my mother,” he says. “Like Pierre’s mother [played by the luminous Marie Brunel], she left me to be raised by someone else, then came back when I was ten. We had a difficult relationship, a love-hate relationship.”

Rather than speaking directly to her about his deep-seated feelings, however, Barratier allowed the film to communicate his pain. “She understood the message of the film, which made her think a lot,” he says. “It was cathartic for me. And, no doubt, for her as well.”

It seems that the film has not only become a professional success for Barratier, but a defining event in many of his relationships. “Oh, it changes your life,” he agrees. “It didn’t change me, but it changed everything around me.” And an Oscar nomination? “Well, it’s not something you expect,” he says slowly. “But it would be a dream come true.” Even for a French director? “Of course,” he says, with a short laugh. “And anyone who tells you different is lying.”

Suddenly, I understand why The Chorus will do well in America, with or without the help of Hollywood’s highest honors. Despite our countless differences—like Pierre and Violet, like Barratier and his mother—the Americans and the French also have a love-hate relationship.

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