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Part of our coverage of the 27th Denver International Film Festival

Les Choristes is the kind of movie that could only come from France. It’s a charming tale about the power of culture over brawn, and it is as sweet as marzipan.

Saint Mathieu

Fond De L'Etang is no place for choirboys
Fond De L’Etang is no place for choirboys
Bare-bones disc offers nothing but the movie
Bare-bones disc offers nothing but the movie

Fond De L’Etang is a nasty place. It’s a boarding school for “difficult” children; it’s a rock bottom boys’ school run under the tyrannical clutches of a cranky director, Monsieur Rachin (Francois Berleand, Les Amateurs).

Enter Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot, Monsieur Batignole), an artist with dreams of glory who takes on the plum assignment of being the boarding school’s new schoolmaster (the boys drove out the last one). As played to understated perfection by Jugnot, Clement is a gentle man, soft spoken, on an even keel, and with a point of view that is the direct opposite of Rachin’s.

After enduring the hazing shenanigans of his new students, Clement embarks on a one-man reformation. By teaching the boys to sing and work as a team in a choir, the students gain a sense of purpose in a senseless school. Their dignity restored and their world opened up to new possibilities, they are ultimately given a future that can carry them beyond the school’s gates.

The Sopranos… and the Tenors

Les Choristes shares the same whimsical storytelling style found in Amelie and the uplifting teacher worship of Dead Poets Society. Under less tender hands than Christophe Barratier’s, the rather unlikely storyline could easily have induced sugar shock on audiences. As it stands, Barratier, making his feature film directing debut, in addition to co-writing the screenplay and composing some of the movie’s classical themes, stands as a candidate to become the next Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

True to French form, the film’s whimsicality is made all the more enjoyable by acknowledging the facts of life. There’s death, there’s botched romance, but there’s also an reassuring undercurrent that these are simply challenges that shall pass and the chance to make something positive happen is right around the corner.

The film starts decades after Clement’s brief tenure at Fond De L’Etang. Just before the beginning of a symphony the conductor, a former student of Clement’s, learns his mother has died. After the concert, the conductor is paid a visit by a man who knew his mother. Her death being the catalyst for their reunion, the two begin to reminisce about those magical days when they were both students at the boarding school.

What’s all the more remarkable about the film is that even though it begins all those years after Clement made his impact on the boys, the story’s conclusion isn’t entirely obvious. It’s a crafty piece of work and the characters are so well drawn and likeable, it is a pleasure to watch the unfolding of their youth and the pieces of the puzzle of their lives get put into place.

In the end, the film reminds the audience of one simple, but worthwhile, lesson that every good teacher knows: one person can make a difference.