The Chorus - 9 Songs - 70s American cinema
The story of an inspirational teacher who motivates 'difficult' pupils to uncover their inner creativity has a long pedigree. It can either be rousing and moving or drown us in sentimentality, which alas is the case with The Chorus (cert 12, released 11 March, Curzon Mayfair, Picture House Clapham and key cities), a hit in its native France and the country's nomination for the Oscars. It tells the story of a benign music teacher Clément Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot), a failed musician, who goes to work at a reform/prep school. Finding the strict regime unnecessarily repressive on the kids, he drafts them into a choir, much to the chagrin of the tyrannical head teacher. Needless to say, the most truculent wayward child also turns out to have the most beautiful voice.
How Mathieu wins over what are meant to be ill-disciplined, hardened brats into a devoted bunch of saintly choir singers will be a mystery to every teacher I know. Not everyone is so taken with the idea and a particular tough nut waits in the wings to wreak his damage. This is a warm bath of lush colours and pretty voices with all the edge and darkness successfully buried for a middle-of-the-road film experience. There is some commentary on rival teaching methods in which corporal punishment - 'action-reaction', the head calls it - challenges a more understanding and creative approach. Yet this is not enough to redeem it unless you have a real yearning for French choral song.
Bound to court controversy is the director of Code 46 and In This World Michael Winterbottom's new film, 9 Songs (cert 18, released 12 March, Curzon Soho). The premise is simple: Matt (Kieran O'Brien), who works for the British Antarctic Survey, recalls his very sexual summer romance with American student Lisa (Margo Stiley). What is unusual is that it charts the relationship primarily through the prism of sexual activity, which is filmed in grainy digital video and in graphic detail. The lust-laden scenes in the bedroom are interspersed with the couple watching hip indie bands - Primal Scream, Franz Ferdinand, Super Furry Animals, etc, then it's back to the bedroom for some light bondage and well, you can imagine the rest. It could be read as a metaphor for something or other or more modestly be seen as part of Winterbottom's avowed mission for more realism in cinema - breaking taboos about the representation of sexuality and love. Unfortunately the underdeveloped characters and their bland conversation render this more of a cool academic exercise, a bit of a glorious failure.
If you are interested in the debates around the legacy of the films shown at a recent NFT season on American cinema in the 1970s then it may be worth browsing The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s, edited by Elsaesser, Horwath and King. The Golden Age (1967-75) of 'audacious, creative and offbeat' films is commonly held to have begun with Bonnie and Clyde but some of these academics seem totally dismissive of what is commonly regarded as the first classical age of American cinema, the 1940s. Too many burn-out middle-aged contributors adopt the films-ain't-what-they-used-to-be position. Have they stopped watching movies? Nevertheless there is some genuinely interesting, if variable, material on the culture, economics and narrative styles of the period.