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Friday, Jan. 5, 2007
'Les metamorphoses du choeur'/'Je ne suis pas la pour etre aime'
Perking up by singing or dancing
By KAORI SHOJI
As far as documentaries go, "Les metamorphoses du choeur (The Metamorphosis of the Choir)" is a lesson in understatement. In fact, director Marie-Claude Treilhou seems motivated by a simple, unassuming love of music. Hers is a low-temperature fascination. Along with cinematographer Pierre Stoeber, she takes the camera to amateur choir practices and films the lessons, the rehearsals and the stage performance, quietly reveling in the no-nonsense, unpretentious telling of it all.
The cast consists of choir master/instructor Claire Marchand, choir members from the Maurice Ravel Institute of Music in Paris, and some teachers. The setting is the Institute building. The frames show people (adults and school children) in various stages of practice -- limbering up their mouth muscles or launching into song. On occasion, there are shots of a teacher giving individual advice to one or the other of the students. There is nothing else.
What surfaces is the joy of singing in unison, and the gradual acquiring of musical skills that match the subtle, gradual metamorphoses of mind and body. Trite as it seems, singing really does help perk up the senses and create a feeling of well-being. Accordingly, weekly choir practice is a source of true happiness to many of the adults in the film, and for the children it opens a window to a world of music and camaraderie that had previously been unknown. Marchand's method is to have the kids exercise before practice, doing stretches or playing musical chairs to relax and get warmed up. Initially a little shy or bored, the children learn to move better, read music and sing in the space of a few weeks, and the way their expressions open up or become immersed in concentration is inspiring.
But then everyone, from the retired elders to the youngest 8-year-olds, becomes dedicated and dead-serious; during the last few lessons before their stage performance, they shed all vestige of amateurishness and come off like skilled professionals.
In an age when music can be downloaded in mere seconds and funneled into the ears nonstop, the very wish to sing in a choir seems precious to the point of mysterious. As Claire Marchand points out, real joy can only come from within and cannot be forcibly drawn out, and that goes double for the will to make music.
"Je ne suis pas la pour etre^ aime (Not here to be loved)" has similar sentiments, albeit more romantic. Written and directed by Stephane Brize and titled "Aisareru Tame ni Kokoni Iru" in Japan, this is the story of a solitary, cranky 50-something French civil servant gradually thawing through tango lessons and a relationship with a younger woman. In this, too, the viewer witnesses the transformation of a cold, rigid body into one that can feel and express pathos, joy and eventually, passion.
Jean Claude (Patrick Chesnais) is locked in a dreary job (ordering and evicting impoverished tenants) and a grim routine (9-to-5 job, dinners eaten alone, Sunday visits to his elderly father in a seniors' home). For a long time the spark in his day comes from peeking at the tango lessons held in the building opposite his office. He feels breathless when climbing some stairs one afternoon and goes to a doctor, whereupon he's told that the best remedy is light exercise. Dancing, for example. This was the nudge on the shoulder that Jean-Claude needed, and he promptly enrolls in the tango school.
Jean-Claude makes for a fascinating study in midlife manhood; having been a star tennis player in his teens, he had somehow given that up to take over his father's job as an eviction/tax bureaucrat. In the process he had married, divorced and turned into a wizened, cheerless bloke whose level of humanity is just a few notches above Scrooge.
To say that Jean-Claude is stressed is like saying the French eat cheese -- he is even being poisoned by his Sunday visits to Papa (Georges Wilson), who is so patently unpleasant that the nurses constantly lodge complaints. Jean-Claude can't communicate with him. Nor can he talk to his son (Cyril Couton), who has joined him in the office and is already showing signs of despair.
Jean-Claude's fellow tango student Francoise (Anne Consigny) alights on this drab landscape like a spring butterfly -- smiling and flirtatious. She requests Jean-Claude as her lesson partner, and when the class is over she asks him for a lift. Jean-Claude doesn't crack a single smile. But as the lessons start to sink in and he becomes better acquainted with Francoise, it's clear Jean-Claude is invigorated; you can actually feel the blood starting to course through his veins. The tango music and graceful, sensual movements open up something that had been suppressed in Jean-Claude for a long, long time. But old habits die hard, and to Brize's credit there are no thunderclap dramatics that change Jean-Claude's life, tango or no.
Still, by the end of the story he has learned to dance with a woman and hold her with just the right amount of pressure in his hands, which when you think about it, makes all the difference.