Christophe Barratier: A noteworthy debut

The Chorus was the biggest film in France last year. Yet, at 40, its first-time director is no enfant terrible. Sholto Byrnes meets him
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The Independent Culture

Christophe Barratier settles himself into the sofa, looking fairly pleased with himself - as well he might. His first feature film, The Chorus, is one of the few French movies to break out of the Francophone market and be shown in mainstream cinemas outside its home country. The feelgood story of how Clément Mathieu, a failed musician turned school supervisor, arrives at a grim boarding establishment in the post-war Auvergne and brings a measure of deliverance to the boys incarcerated there through singing, has inevitably earned comparisons with Amélie; a compliment indeed, given the latter's success.

Christophe Barratier settles himself into the sofa, looking fairly pleased with himself - as well he might. His first feature film, The Chorus, is one of the few French movies to break out of the Francophone market and be shown in mainstream cinemas outside its home country. The feelgood story of how Clément Mathieu, a failed musician turned school supervisor, arrives at a grim boarding establishment in the post-war Auvergne and brings a measure of deliverance to the boys incarcerated there through singing, has inevitably earned comparisons with Amélie; a compliment indeed, given the latter's success.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 film and Barratier's directorial debut share a lightness, humour, and a certain amount of sugar-coating. Both are the antithesis of the classic caricature of French film - unhappy lovers who look moody and dishevelled (yet sophisticated) spending long periods not doing very much, punctuated by aimless dialogue of no obvious relevance.

But Jeunet already had Delicatessen and even Alien: Resurrection under his belt by the time Amélie came out. For Barratier, the popularity of The Chorus, which was the top-grossing film in France last year with nine million viewers and which won an Oscar nomination for best foreign film, has gone far beyond any expectations.

"My film was not considered to be a blockbuster at the beginning," he says. "Now it is, because of the nine million. But at the beginning it was considered to be an auteur film, very arthouse. When I was writing the script, I was sure that the story could please the audience, but it was not considered very fashionable. If you were conducting market research, it would not come up with a story set in a boarding school about a boys' choir. Absolutely not."

With a budget of only £3.5 million, says Barratier, it was very tough on set. "For a movie that's supposed to be in 1940s costumes, and with kids, when everything takes much longer, it was not a lot of money. I had no cranes. I had just one camera, and I needed two. But when you are poor you have to think a lot before doing things. There was no wasted time and no wasted film. Everything had to be planned." For this reason, he explains, there was no final cut in the film - for the simple reason that nothing at all was "cut". "No sequences ended up on the cutting room floor," he says. "I used them all. Anyway, it's not very smart when your first cut is three hours and afterwards you only have a 90 minute movie. It's a waste of time, money and energy. I think it's really stupid."

When he was seven the precocious young Christophe wrote screen adaptations of Dumas and Balzac novels. "I found these papers a while ago," he recalls, "from when I was 10. I had written the beginning of the Count of Monte Cristo. Although I hadn't written all of it, I was already deciding who would be in the cast." He began directing his friends in short films when he was 15, but another love came between him and the camera, which is why, he tells me, it is a 40-year-old Barratier, not a younger version, who sits before me talking about his first feature film.

"I started to learn classical guitar when I was eight," he says, "and I was quite talented." At 13 he went to the Ecole Normale to continue his studies, graduating at 19 with concert and teaching diplomas. "I thoroughly enjoyed studying under the Spanish maestros at the Ecole Normale. Unfortunately, I discovered by the time I was 21 that all my friends who were violinists, celloists, and oboists were playing in chamber orchestras. But there are no classical guitars in orchestras, so if you are a guitarist you are condemned to give solo concerts. And there are not a lot of them, and they are not very popular."

Barratier recalls the years when Julian Bream and John Williams regularly filled 2,500 seat venues in Paris. "Now it's all over. There are no more concerts in those big venues. Everything is in little churches." Despite winning competitions and prizes, Barratier feared he would end up being a guitar teacher rather than a guitarist. So one afternoon while holidaying in the South of France he decided to give up. "All my family were very shocked," he says. "But I was really tired of practising six hours a day. I was 26. Everybody else was on the boat, the ship, the beach - and I was practising. Was I working so hard just to end up as a guitar teacher in the Paris suburbs? I felt very depressed. And I felt much better when I decided to stop."

Barratier had to struggle to find work in the film industry. "I had to fight to get on set, to be a director's assistant, to be a production assistant," he says. "But after that I discovered that I was good at some things, and I was very attracted by scriptwriting."

Does he think the French film industry takes itself too seriously? "Yes," he replies. "We have always had a strict definition of cinema as high art. A lot of very powerful critics have said that cinema can be everything but entertainment. It's art, certainly, but it also can be a pleasure. Sometimes, if a movie pleased the audience it made the critics suspicious. But I don't think people really listen to the critics now, except when they are in unanimity.

"You need a part of the industry to be experimental," he continues. "That is very important. But you cannot exist just by accepting subsidies. Sometimes we forget this. To me, the best way to protect French film is to make successful films."

The Chorus is a sweet, hanky-dabber of a film, and one which brushes with the issues of the time but chooses not to engage with them fully. Shot near the Vichy state's seat of government and set just after the war, it includes a dictatorial headmaster, Rachin, who Barratier acknowledges could be interpreted as a Petain figure. Yet in the final script, he opted to excise any explicit references to war and collaboration. "Maybe it was a little too obvious," he says. "Not all the collaborators were monsters, and not all the ordinary people were very good." Instead, for Barratier, The Chorus represents an examination of his own unhappy time at boarding school, where he went from the age of six till 10 after his parents divorced.

He has written one of the themes used in the film, and has begun, tentatively, to pick up the guitar again as a hobby. "When I left music I didn't know whether I had been a coward or courageous," he says. "Now I think I have been courageous because, at 40, I've made a film where the music is very important and I've talked about my childhood. Maybe for the first time in my life I feel that I'm in the right place."

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