LEARNING GUIDE TO:
In French with English Subtitles
SUBJECTS — Music; World/France; Literature/Poetry Analysis; Literary Devices:Age: 10+; MPAA Rating -- PG-13 Drama; 2005 (U.S. release); 96 minutes; Color; Available from Amazon.com.
Description: The time is shortly after WWII; the place is somewhere in rural France at Fond de L'Etang (The Bottom of the Pond), a school for boys with discipline problems or whose families cannot keep them. "Les Choristes" tells the story of Pierre Morhange, a student with undiscovered musical talent, and Mssr. Mathieu, a frustrated musician who serves as the dean of discipline. Opposing the school's strict methods of controlling the students, Mathieu begins to use music to affect change in the rowdy and ill-natured boys. The successful effort to create a choir, with Morhange as the featured soloist, changes the students and the teacher. As sometimes occurs with innovative and inspiring teachers, Mathieu is fired.
Benefits of the Movie: Students will empathize with the young characters in the film and benefit from the demonstration of hope and caring that constitute the theme.
English Language Arts classes can focus on explicating translations of the poems that constitute lyrics for the songs O Nuit! and Vois Sur Ton Chemin. This Guide provides exercises using the "say, mean, matter" method of analysing poetry. "Les Choristes" also provides excellent opportunities for students to discuss or write about themes in a story. See the discussion questions. ELA standards in all states require students to be able to find meaning in a poem, to ferret out the theme and ideas in a story, and to write about their conclusions.
French Language Classes will benefit when students translate the lyrics of songs from "Les Choristes". Students can then practice their skills in French by writing explications of the poems. See Explication of the Lyrics of Two Songs. The discussion questions can prompt interesting exchanges and many can serve as writing prompts for essays in the language of the film.
Music classes and choirs may benefit from improved motivation and esprit de corps after watching this film. Students can also be asked to trace the history of children's choirs, both in Europe and the United States. Presentations can be made using YouTube or actual recordings of famous choirs such as the Vienna Boy's Choir or the several choirs made up of young people that are based in American cities.
Parenting Points: Parents can point out how cooperation can create beauty; the boys work together to make wonderful music. Parents can use this film to discuss bullies in both children and adults. They can discuss how people can change and how one individual can have an important influence on the lives of others.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION: When the caretaker, Maxence, is hurt, the boys are punished unjustly by Rachin, the superintendent. How does Mathieu create a just punishment and teach the boys a powerful lesson in his response to this situation?
Suggested Response: Mathieu is able to discover the culprit who set the trap that hurt the old man. The boy didn't intend to hurt anyone; the act was a prank gone wrong. Mathieu objects to Rachin's efforts to turn the boys into informers. Mathieu manipulates both the boys and Rachin and is able to require that the boy responsible for the injury takes care of old Maxence until the old man has recovered. This just punishment requires that the boy receive a logical consequence of his action; it gives the boy an opportunity to do something good and to make up for what he has done; it offers the other students an example of justice.
Explication of Poetry in the Lyrics of Two Songs
Have students use the "say, mean, matter" method of interpretation to analyze the poems which are the lyrics for the songs O Nuit! and Vois Sur Ton Chemin.
Say: Students should write precise paraphrases of each verse in order to determine what the author is saying.
Mean: Students should then attempt to find meaning in what is said. This is often a matter of paying attention to diction and the feeling that lies behind the words.
Matter: Students should be able to write a sentence saying how the poet's words matter in terms of their own lives. When the poem matters, theme is easy to find.
Click here for a translation of the lyrics to the song O Nuit!. The subtitles also provide a translation and there may be others on the Internet or in print. In French language classes, students can be asked to translate the poem themselves.
Below is a model of a strong response to this assignment.
1. What is the poet saying in the poem O Nuit!?
Example of a Strong Response: Night time, give us the magical peace that we can see in you but we don't understand. The darkness that comes with you is gentle and good. You bring music that speaks of hope. You are strong. You turn everything into a dream. Night time, allow us to keep the peace of your magic. The darkness that comes with you is gentle and good. Dreams are beautiful. Hope is true.
2. In the poem O Nuit!, what does the poet mean?
Example of a Strong Response: Night is a powerful force that brings us peace and hope and dreams.
3. Why does this poem matter?
Example of a Strong Response: Lives are better with hope and dreams.
Activities: After applying the "say, mean, matter" analysis, students can write an explication of the poem, citing diction and explaining how the poem communicates its themes and ideas.
Students can write an essay showing how the ideas in the poem exemplify the meaning of the film itself.
Students can change word choice, add rhyme, shift the rhythms or otherwise alter the poem in a creative rewrite that may more clearly speak to their peers or to modern sensibilities.
Vois Sur Ton Chemin
A translation of Vois Sur Ton Chemin (See Upon Your Path) can be found on the Internet. The subtitles also provide a translation and there may be others on the Internet or in print. In French language classes, students can translate the poem themselves.
In both French and ELA classes, students can employ the "say, mean, matter" method of analyzing a poem. As an alternative, teachers can ask students to write an analytical essay using the following prompt:
Show how diction, imagery and tone used in the poem guide the reader to understanding the poem's overall meaning. Be sure to cite examples of each of these three literary elements and to comment in terms of its effectiveness in clarifying theme.
Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.
Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.
Note that the there are generally no single correct answers to the questions in the "say, mean, matter" analysis. Instead, there are strong or weak answers depending upon the logic used and the evidence marshalled to support the response.
Are you concerned that time will be wasted if you are absent from class? Worry no more . . . Check out TeachWithMovies' Set-Up-the-Sub.
Click here for TWM's lesson plans to introduce cinematic and theatrical technique.
1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
2. The film opens and closes with two old men looking back at the events that occurred while they were students at Fond de L'Etang. How do the characterizations of these two men logically follow the characterization of each as children? Consider physical appearance, life's work and mood. Suggested Response: The orchestra conductor is Morhange, the soloist in the chorus years earlier. He is now a master musician, appearing dignified, solemn, and reserved. He takes time out to deal with his mother's death. The audience sees that the talent in the boy has flowered into accomplishment in the man. The other old man, Pepinot, is good natured, less elegant than Morhange, and open-hearted. This, too, is a logical development of the young Pepinot, an winsome orphan who waited each Saturday for parents who would never appear.
3. The story of their childhood, as recalled by the two old men, opens with the camera approaching a gate with the words "Fond de L'Etang" beckoning the audience forward. These words mean "bottom of the pond". In English there is a similar expression: the bottom of the barrel. What symbolic meaning is suggested here? Suggested Response: The student body consists of young boys with behavior problems, orphans, or boys whose parents cannot take care of them. They are at the bottom of the social order. In one sense, the students are the castaways, the rejects of society, the bottom of the barrel.
4. The Prefect, Clement Mathieu, defines himself as a failed musician. What evidence is offered throughout the film that reveals this to be either true or false? Suggested Response: Mathieu's position at the school is low in status and has nothing to do with music until he decides to create the choir providing his own compositions for the students to sing. The choir is a great success but Mathieu allows the school's director to take all the credit. Mathieu asserts himself only after he is fired. As he leaves the school, Mathieu declares himself to be a failure. However, in the farewell that the boys give him and in Morhange's success, we see how important Mathieu's musical skills have been to others. Lack of fame and fortune do not make an individual a failure.
5. What change can be seen in the arithmetic teacher and how does it relate to a theme of the film? Suggested Response: Just as music changes the students, music changes this man. He grows from a humorless, uptight teacher into a person delighted with the prospect of having a vacation in a home with a piano. He is deeply moved by the choir. He begins to smile.
6. "Action-Reaction" is the term used in the film to describe the disciplinary method used at the school. What is this method all about? Does it exist at your school or in your home? Suggested Response: This term describes an attempt to apply a principle of the physical sciences to disciplinary procedures in a school. Isaac Newton's Third Law of Motion provides that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. As a disciplinary tool this means that any harm or disorder will be followed by an equal measure of punishment and enforced order. Examples from students' schools or personal lives will vary.
7. Do you believe that society at large objects to or supports the Action-Reaction form of discipline? What is your opinion of this method of discipline? Suggested Response: Opinions will vary and there are no correct or incorrect answers. There are only strong or weak responses depending upon the facts and logic marshalled to support the conclusion. Strong responses will mention that principles of physical science do not necessarily apply to the social sciences.
8. Mondain, the bad boy who comes to the school in an experiment with liberal education, gives Mathieu a friendly nod as he is being taken away by the police. What do you think he intends to communicate with this gesture? Suggested Response: Mondain has been treated unjustly and he has seen Mathieu behave as someone who believes in justice. The nod could mean: See, there is no justice. Or, it could mean: I will show you justice soon. The students will vary in their responses to this question. Responses need to be internally consistent, meaning true to the facts presented in the film.
9. What is the purpose behind Mathieu's consistent efforts to cover for the boys' bad behavior? Suggested Response: Mathieu may be trying to show the boys a more humanitarian method of dealing with their fellow human beings. He may be revolting against the Action-Reaction system put in place by Rachin. Some students may suggest that he is weak and wants the boys to like him. Answers will vary. There are no correct or incorrect answers but only strong or weak responses depending upon the facts and logic marshalled to support the conclusion.
10. Give illustrations of what Mathieu does to cause Morhange to change. Suggested Response: Early in the film Mathieu puts Morhange in charge of the class when he leaves to tend to a problem. Later, he allows Morhange to rejoin the choir as a way to avoid another sort of punishment. He then gives the boy a solo. Toward the end of the film, Mathieu punishes Morhange by taking away his solo; however, during an important performance Mathieu sees that Morhange has been punished enough and wants desperately to work with the choir again. Morhange is invited back into the fold and shines. He is changed.
11. When Mathieu is beginning to write music again he says that, "nothing is truly ever lost." What is he talking about? Suggested Response: Mathieu is taking about both his music and the boys themselves. He will now begin to use his music, which he had considered lost, to affect the boys, whom others have cast away — in the symbolism of the story, to the bottom of the pond — and who may believe themselves to be lost. Mathieu, however, believes that the boys are capable of being saved. In a voice over, Mathieu ponders whether these kids really are a lost cause. He sees hope.
12. What explains Morhange's hostility to Mathieu's interest in his mother? Suggested Response: Morhange has very little to hold onto in life; he does not want to share his mother. Later Mathieu explains the boy's possessiveness to Violetta, the boy's mother, by telling her about how she is every boy's dream mother. Morhange is sensitive to the image his mother casts in the eyes of the other boys.
13. Mondain provides a significant complication for Mathieu. What is it? Suggested Response: Mondain challenges Mathieu's liberal ideals. Mathieu stays true to his sense of justice. Mondain is cruel to others and Mathieu calls him on this behavior but does not resort to cruelty in his treatment of the boy. Mondain is unjustly accused of stealing from the school and is badly abused by Rachin. His attack in response to half an hour of slapping illustrates how violence begets violence. He sets the school on fire, thus further illustrating how injustice begets violence.
14. The boys are happier now that they are singing in the choir. They are more playful and cooperative. What is your explanation for this change? Suggested Response: There are several answers with merit; they include: someone believes in the boys; they are proud of their accomplishments and their self-esteem has increased; they have hope that life in the school will be better; the self-expression that they are permitted in singing allows them an outlet for their emotions.
15. Mathieu asks the boy who was found to have stolen the money, a crime for which Mondain was punished, what he wanted to buy. The boy answers: A hot air balloon. What does this symbolize? Suggested Response: A hot air balloon could symbolize freedom, escape, beauty, or a deep desire to float above all of the loneliness and problems of earth-bound experience. Answers will vary. There are no correct or incorrect answers but only strong or weak responses depending upon the facts and logic marshalled to support the conclusion.
16. When the choir is cancelled as a form of punishment for Mondain's having set fire to the school, Mathieu takes it underground. What could this mean metaphorically? Suggested Response: Since the film is set in post-war France, there is the suggestion that the underground is a reminder of the efforts of the resistance in several countries during World War 11. Partisans fought mightily against the Nazi occupations in France, Italy and elsewhere. The "underground" is thus a metaphor for resistance to tyrannical authority.
17. Is Mathieu helping Morhange because he wants to impress the boy's mother or because the boy deserves such treatment? Suggested Response: Answers will vary. The best responses will look to the film for evidence of the opinions given and will mention that Morhange, despite his mother and all she means to Mathieu, is an exceptional singer who well deserves help from someone who knows and loves music. A strong response would be that Mathieu had both motives and that when Violetta became engaged and out of reach, Mathieu continued his interest in the boy. Mathieu is portrayed as the kind of person who can set his ego aside. He does this several times with the boys and with Rachin.
18. What irony can be seen in the relationship between Mondain and Rachin which suggests that what-goes-around-comes-around? Suggested Response: Just as Rachin is about to receive an award for his humanitarian methods of running the school, he is called back to Fond de L'Etang which is burning down. The irony lies in the fact that the triumph of Rachin's hypocrisy, a ceremony honoring him as a humanitarian, is interrupted by Mondain's pay-back for the injustice meted out to him by Rachin.
19. What personal characteristics in both the workers and the boys at the school resulted in Rachin's dismissal as the director of the school? Suggested Response: It took courage for the employees, such as Maxence, to go to the authorities and explain the malevolence of Rachin. The boys, as well, mustered courage in order to testify against the director.
20. What is the source of the exhilaration Mathieu feels as he leaves Fond de l'Etang? Suggested Response: When Mathieu walks away from the building after he has been unjustly fired, he hopes the boys will at least break the rules to come and say goodbye. He is at first disappointed but then the boys begin singing and sending paper airplanes with messages down on the path before Mathieu. He realizes how much the boys care for him as he hears the music that he knows has become essential to their lives. The boys feel hopeful. Mathieu may be a failed musician and an unemployed prefect, but he has influenced the lives of the boys at the school; he is a happy man.
21. It first appears that Mathieu will leave the boarding school alone on a Saturday afternoon without seeing any of his students. As he is about to board the bus, Pepinot comes to ask Mathieu to take him and Mathieu says he cannot. Pepinot watches as the bus pulls away, then stops. Pepinot is taken aboard and Mathieu raises Pepinot as his son. What do you think made Mathieu change his mind about taking Pepinot with him? Suggested Response: Responses will vary. Mathieu always had a soft spot for Pepinot, the youngest and loneliest boy at the school who, every Saturday, waited at the gates for his parents to come and get him. Mathieu, feeling the joy and optimism that came from the realization that he had been important to the students, was able to risk the potential problems that may have come with doing the right thing, taking Pepinot with him. A feeling of love drove his actions.
See also, the Quick Discussion Question.
Select questions that are appropriate for your students.
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For English Language Arts classes, distribute TWM's Film Study Worksheet. Teachers can modify the worksheet to fit the needs of each class. Ask students to fill out the worksheet as they watch the film or at the film's end.
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Selected Awards, Cast and Director:
Director: Christophe Barratier.
Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
1. Mathieu was obviously a caring individual. Describe a caring thing that he did in the movie. Suggested Response: Mathieu's actions were, almost always, caring. Many events in the film will be a good response to this question.
Teachwithmovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner" and uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.
Character Counts and the Six Pillars of Character are marks of the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition, a project of the Josephson Institute of Ethics.
Assignments, Projects and Activities
See the activities in the section entitled Explication of Poetry in the Lyrics of Two Songs. Any of the theme related discussion questions can serve as the basis for an essay or writing assignment. Additional assignments can be found at TWM's Assignments, Projects and Activities for Use With Any Film that is a Work of Fiction
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