I had expected to see a French prison drama exploring questions of guilt and innocence but due to a delay in the completion of that film’s subtitling, another film due to be screened at next month’s Alliance Francaise French Film Festival was screened in its place.
A quick iPhone internet search ensued and I discovered the replacement film – Tenor – would be a film set in that rare area of overlap between the conflicting worlds of rap music and opera.
I reluctantly trudged into the cinema, not expecting much from the impending experience, as I am not usually a fan of either genre. I decided to give the film a chance before looking for alternative entertainment elsewhere and I am glad I did.
Tenor stars Mohamed Belkhir who, under his rap alias MB14, came to national attention in France as a contestant on the French version of The Voice, and then went on to become the beatbox champion of the world in 2018.
Belkhir plays Antoine, a young man who works part-time making sushi deliveries to well-to-do Parisians, whilst also trying to find motivation to complete his studies in accounting which is a subject that he has little interest in.
He lives with his older brother, Didier (played by Guillaume Duhesme), who supports his younger brother with income earned through participating in illegal street fights.
He is tough – like a French version of Vinnie Jones’ character, Big Chris, from Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels – but he has a soft heart when it comes to his brother’s welfare.
This familial bond is eventually tested, however, when Didier learns of Antoine’s secret involvement in the world of opera and the fact he had chosen not to reveal it to his family and friends.
Antoine’s interest in the strange and alluring operatic environment is initially sparked when, during the act of delivering sushi to one of the students at the L’Opera Garnier, he finds himself in the middle of a singing class. He becomes instantly mesmerised by the beauty and power of the singing that he hears.
When he is condescendingly denigrated by one of the socially privileged males in the group who does not appreciate his interruption of the class, Antoine unleashes a barrage of insults delivered in ‘rap battle’ mode. His rapid verbal attack concludes with him singing the final burst of invective in mock operatic style.
This last burst of song catches the ear of Madame Loyseau (Michele Laroque), the group’s teacher, who recognises the raw quality of his singing voice. She then makes it her mission to convince him to develop his talent as an operatic tenor.
Whilst director Claude Zini Jr. has employed a number of over-used cinematic tropes in Tenor – such as its ‘poor kid makes good’ storyline, the ‘villain with a heart’ character of his brother, and its use of a love triangle to add another layer of complexity to the plot – he has ensured that his characters are developed deeply enough to avoid cliché and the film subsequently works well at every level.
The film is billed as a comedy, which seems a little misleading and simplistic. There is a lot more drama than comedy here, but never so much that we are ever in fear of the protagonist failing in his quest to better himself.
There are plenty of comic moments though – such as Antoine lying to his estranged mother, during one of her nightly phone calls to her boys, by saying he has gone to Japan in his panicked attempt to cover up the fact his older brother has just landed in prison. The ensuing scenes of Didier trying to maintain the ruse from his cell are very funny indeed.
The musical soundtrack of the film is heavily skewed to opera, and the rap battle sequences, where Antoine represents his gang the Rembrandts as they ‘fight’ for bragging rights against their sworn foes the Picassos, are brief – but these scenes could be confronting for some cinema patrons who do not like to hear angry young men loudly declaring what they are going to do to your mother!
Tenor is a wonderful film. It is engaging, uplifting, full of wonderful images of bourgeois Paris, has a terrific ensemble cast, and it consistently sounds fantastic.
I am sure this film is destined to be one of the major successes at this year’s Alliance Francaise French Film Festival.
Tenor is scheduled to screen at the:
Palace Eastend Cinemas on 28 & 31 March, and on 1, 5, 10 and 14 April.
Palace Cinemas Prospect on 30 March and on 6, 10, 16 & 19 April.
There will also be a screening at Mt. Gambier on 1 April.
Book tickets here: AF FFF