- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

The French filmmaker Christophe Barratier passed through Washington before being nominated Tuesday for two Academy Awards: as director of “The Chorus,” itself a nominee for best foreign-language film, and as lyricist of a best-song candidate.

Translated as “Look to Your Path,” the song is one of six numbers Mr Barratier, a very youngish 40, and composer Bruno Colais created as choral anthems for the film, which celebrates an inspirational music teacher at a boys’ orphanage and reformatory in the Auvergne in the late 1940s.

During a conversation at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, Mr. Barratier confirmed that he would be at the Oscar ceremony Feb. 27 if his movie, which opened yesterday at Washington-area art houses, secured a nomination or two.

It will be a globe-trotting weekend for him: The Cesar awards — the French movie industry’s equivalent of the Oscars — will be presented the evening of Feb. 26.

Mr. Barratier believes that “The Chorus,” which opened unheralded in March and became the year’s home-grown blockbuster in France, may have experienced too much success to dominate the Cesars.

“To be honest, I think we will have a lot of nominations but not many prizes,” he reflects. “A big box-office film is never rewarded. A little box-office is fine, because you need to be known. But if you are too high, they say, ‘OK., he already has enough reward. Give someone else a chance.’”

The director would be content if this bias costs him but not his leading man, a middle-aged character actor named Gerard Jugnot, a popular comedy star of the French screen for many years.

The role of the music teacher, Clement Mathieu, was tailored for the bald, middle-aged, round-cheeked Mr. Jugnot, whose most trusted writer, Philippe Lopes-Curval, collaborated on the screenplay of “The Chorus” (“Les Choristes” in French) with Mr. Barratier.

“Gerard is very popular from his comedies, but they have not been dramatic comedies,” Mr. Barratier says. He likens Mr. Jugnot’s skills to those of Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy, “but maybe a little more goofy than that.”

Clement Mathieu is a breakthrough role for the actor, Mr. Barratier believes. “The Chorus” is “the second time he made a curve into more dramatic roles, but this worked much better for him,” he says. “It fits perfectly. People always liked him very much, but now he’s recognized as a great actor. Which is different. … An actor is not considered great until he plays dramatic characters.”

Mr. Barratier acknowledges several autobiographical influences on the movie, starting with an obscure French film of 1945, “Cage of Nightingales,” that dealt with the same situation.

His parents were actors who divorced when he was young and sent him to a boarding school far from their base in Paris when he was 5. The director claims himself as the model for the little boy named Pepinot, who waits in vain for weekend visits from his father or mother.

Reunited with his mother in Paris when he was 10, Mr. Barratier was something of a musical prodigy by then. A friendly music teacher, a Spaniard, got him started as both a classical guitar student and a soprano in the school choir.

Upon graduation from a music conservatory at 18, Mr. Barratier gradually was disillusioned by the outlook for a sustained performing career. He says similar disappointments confronted several classmates who dreamed of playing with symphony orchestras but then turned exclusively to teaching music when jobs proved scarce.

Mr. Barratier engineered his own professional shift at the age of 24 by appealing to his uncle, actor-producer Jacques Perrin, for an entry into the film business. Mr. Perrin, who appears in “The Chorus” and is one of its co-producers, promptly obliged.

His nephew advanced from reader to production manager to assistant director while working on several productions, including the ambitious wildlife documentaries “Microcosmos” and “Winged Migration.”

He is in a position to assure moviegoers about the wounded little bird in the latter that appears to be devoured on the beach by ravenous crabs. It was spared and healed. “We threw the crabs a piece of chicken,” he reveals, “but the fact remains that hundreds of birds are damaged as they fly in from the sea.”

Mr. Barratier has not entirely abandoned the classical guitar. “Once you’re a musician, you’re always a musician,” he attests. He still practices every day and can be importuned to contribute songs to certain performers from time to time. Andrea Bocelli was an irresistible supplicant.

Inevitably, the American movie industry also has been eager to solicit Mr. Barratier’s emerging skill as a director. Represented by ICM and sufficiently fluent in English to avoid a lot of miscommunication, the filmmaker confirms that some offers are tempting. However, he remains cautious.

“When you read a little bit the story of the cinema,” Mr. Barratier says, “you learn that the French directors who came to Los Angeles, about 90 percent lost a lot of time. You can be very attracted by a dream of Hollywood and then return, three years later, without a good movie to show for those years. Meanwhile, you have lost your reputation in France. So you need to be very careful.”

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