'La Melodie': Film Review | Venice 2017

Courtesy of Mizar Films
No unchained melody.

Algeria-born, France-based director Rachid Hami's inspirational-teacher drama stars 'Welcome to the Sticks' actor Kad Merad in an unusually serious role as the violin teacher of a class of misfits.

A sullen French-Algerian violinist tries to tame a rowdy Parisian class of immigrant and second-generation immigrant kids so he can teach them how to play the fiddle in La Melodie. For those who have seen Sergio Machado’s 2015 title The Violin Teacher, shot in the shantytowns of Sao Paulo, or, before that, Wes Craven’s East Harlem-set Music of the Heart with Meryl Streep, this will be an all-too-familiar tale — except that it’s now in French. Indeed, for much of the film’s running time, actor-turned-director Rachid Hami doesn’t seem interested in reinventing the wheel of the inspiring-music-teacher genre, which makes this unfussily assembled feature the cinematic equivalent of a pretty comfortable but also rather everyday sweater.

After a slot as an Out of Competition title in Venice, this accessible if dramatically a little flat crowd-pleaser should do mid-range business in France, where it opens in November. The presence of Welcome to the Sticks comedian Kad Merad, somewhat cast against type here in a more serious role, is an added marketing bonus and could give it a leg up in France and selected European territories, at least on opening weekend.

The withdrawn and stoop-shouldered Simon Daoud (Merad) arrives on the first day of school a little intimidated. When he’s introduced by teacher Farid (Samir Guesmi) to his class of rowdy and trash-talking gang of 12-year-olds who’ve never played an instrument before, you can practically hear his heart fall out of his chest from pure desperation. A concert violinist by trade, Simon has no teaching experience, so he needs to force himself to tackle this new challenge. But when, to break the ice, he asks which classical composers the kids know and the answers that come back are “Mozart,” “Wolfgang Amadeus Beethoven” and “Celine Dion,” he knows it’s going to be an uphill battle.

Clearly, Daoud, who’s half Breton, half Algerian, has never seen a movie like the one he’s starring in, as what follows is entirely predictable. Kids fight, struggle, temporarily quit or have parents that aren’t on board with their musical ambitions. But then — spoiler alert if you’ve also never seen an inspiring-teacher movie — some serious practice sessions and bonding will lead them to excel at an important concert that’ll serve as the film’s rousing finale. Daoud also struggles, not only with his very necessary job but also with his private life, as he’s divorced and has a difficult relationship with his teenage daughter. To complicate matters even further, halfway through the school year he’s offered the position of second violin in a quatuor that’s about to embark on a concert tour. But accepting that role would mean leaving his struggling class behind. No points for guessing what his decision will turn out to be.

The screenplay was written by Guy Laurent, Valerie Zenatti and the director, and they seem content to follow the subgenre’s standard template with only minor variations. Simon takes a special interest in the most gifted of the pupils, Arnold (Renely Alfred), for example, a shy and chubby kid of African heritage whose mother (Tatjana Rojo) invites the violin teacher over for dinner one evening. In one of the few moments he does something unexpected, Hami refuses to turn this into a potential love story for the two single adults. But what the film has come up with instead, a sappy subplot about the absent father the jealous Arnold never knew, is underdeveloped and then never really resolved.

The feature’s most transporting moments, and they are few, are the ones that feel at least semi-improvised, like when the kids fight during a rehearsal on a snow-covered rooftop overlooking Paris or at a pizza joint, where they gently rib each other over their supposed love interests and sexual experiences. These scenes feel more realistic and bring to mind a younger version of a film like Cantet’s Cannes-winning The Class. The natural, partially nonsensical dialogue is key in giving these moments their flavor and also point back to the work of Blue Is the Warmest Color helmer Abdellatif Kechiche, who gave Hami his first role as an actor in his second feature, Games of Love and Chance. Like both those directors, Hami doesn't turn his multicultural cast into a talking point, secure in their knowledge that this is simply what France looks like. But the film's few, more lived-in moments often involve secondary characters with no story arc of their own, so they never feel properly integrated into the fabric of the otherwise very formatted plot.

Merad, who looks more severe than ever with his fully shaved head and wire-rimmed glasses, delivers an almost dour turn as the teacher with an eternally downward-cast glance. Even when he’s playing the violin, he never seems really transported by the music. The kids are louder and more energetic and give the film some much-needed fizz on its way to the third-act concert — shot at the Philharmonie de Paris, also a co-producer — that feels so unsurprising it’s hard to feel the pic has really earned that standing ovation at the end. That said, newcomer Alfred is a soulful discovery whose occasionally tear-streaked face is one of the few things that feels genuine about this otherwise largely by-the-numbers production.

The original score, by "the Danny Elfman of France,” Bruno Coulais, feels like a glowing and warm bath poured over a slightly more standoffish film.

Production companies: Mizar Films, UGC, France 2 Cinema, Cite de la musique — Philharmonie de Paris
Cast: Kad Merad, Samir Guesmi, Slimane Dazi, Mathieu Spinosi, Constance Dolle, Sofiene Mamdi, Tatjana Rojo, Renely Alfred
Director: Rachid Hami
Screenwriters: Guy Laurent, Valerie Zenatti, Rachid Hami
Producer: Nicolas Mauvernay
Director of photography: Jerome Almeras
Production designer: Sebastien Gondek
Costume designer: Joan Bich
Editor: Joelle Hache
Music: Bruno Coulais
Casting: Justine Leocadie
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Sales: Gaumont

In French
101 minutes

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