Director: Claude Zidi Jr (France). Year of Release: 2022
Antoine has a busy life. When he’s not dozing through lessons at accountancy school (although he answers the teacher’s questions perfectly when raised from his slumbers), he’s engaging in rap battles in the local club, doing the finances for his brother’s bare-knuckle boxing bouts, or working in the gig economy delivering sushi. It’s in the last role that he is called one day to deliver food into the Opéra Garnier.
Marie, a singing teacher, doesn’t usually eat sushi, unless she’s in Tokyo, or at a push in San Francisco. But when Antoine interrupts her class, she is intrigued. When one of her posh students is rude to him, he responds, first with a rap diss, then in a perfect tenor voice, before disappearing. Marie tries asking at the delivery company who he is, but they can’t divulge information about their workers, so she has to order sushi once more, this time delivered to her house.
Marie tells Antoine that she sees something in him, and would like him to join her classes. After an initial misunderstanding, where he interprets her patting his diaphragm as a sexual advance, it’s not long before she’s telling him how to better control his breathing, and he’s singing Puccini with the rest of them. The only problem is that he must conceal his opera lessons from his homies because … well it’s not really clear why, other than this is what the Plot demands.
Antoine falls in love with one of his fellow pupils, Josephine, who is the sort of person who has a theatre in her home. Well, it’s not exactly her home – it’s where her father lives with her stepmother, but it’s not long before Antoine and Josephine are putting on costumes and giving an impromptu performance to her extended family. If I weren’t so slow at picking up hints, I might think that the film is trying to say things about different living conditions for different social classes.
Will Antoine and Marie learn from each other and find a happy medium half way between them?Will Marie discover that she likes 2Pac just as much as she does opera? Will Antoine’s friends discover that they quite like opera after all? What do you think? Nothing happens in Ténor that does not follow all accepted conventions. There are no surprizes here.
Some way along the line, Antoine’s brother Didier is sent to jail, and there followed a scene which had half the cinema almost wetting itself in laughter. Didier sends messages to his mother using a picture of Japan as a backdrop. But the picture he uses is full of snow, because he thinks that a country that is on the other side of the world must have Winter while France is in Summer. For a film which dislikes class inequalities, Ténor doesn’t half think that working class people are thick.
In fact, for all the fake worry about social injustice, Ténor perpetuates endless clichés. Notably, there is absolutely no mention of race. Antoine is from the banlieus, and most of his friends are Black or Arab. The world of Marie and her pupils is entirely white. Yet none of them appears to be remotely racist. Even Antoine’s nemesis, who was rude to him in the early scene, says he hates him but wants to beat him on a level playing field.
This brings us to the point that the film occasionally suggests, but never fully acknowledges. The playing field is not level. First there is the institutional (and subjective) racism that really does prevent most people with Antoine’s skin colour and home address succeeding in society. But even if that racism were not there, their every day living conditions deny them the opportunities handed on a silver spoon to Marie’s pampered pupils.
The film implies that within 6 months, Antoine does not just learn how to sing opera, but that he learns to sing in Italian with the perfect pronunciation. And yet we never see him practising – what with having to work for a living and his rap battles, and accountancy lessons, he just doesn’t have the time. You feel that Tènor is blaming poor people for their poor representation in opera – if Antoine can do it in entirely fictional circumstances, why can’t you?
This brings us to my final problem with the film (for now). Why is Antoine absolutely unable to tell any of his friends about his opera lessons – even Samia, his “best friend”, a woman who obviously went into the army to try and stop thinking about her love for him? There is an overriding suggestion that working class people cannot appreciate opera – until the final scene when he sings Nessun Dorma, and everyone who until that moment was disgusted by his singing is won over.
The choice of song is particularly apt. Remember Italia 90, when everyone went out the Three Tenors singing Nessun Dorma? And when I say everyone, I don’t just mean the “intelligent” middle classes, but a lot of people from the banlieus as well. It has been over 30 years since opera was at least acceptable in most working class areas – not everyone’s music of choice, but also nothing to be ashamed of.
I don’t know if the various writers of the film are simply unaware of how poor people actually think, or they feel that they must present this patronising vision in order to get their film greenlit. Either way, it’s not a good look, and what looked like a promising film which wants to address some interesting ideas about inequality, just lacks the dramatic depth to say anything of interest. Under these conditions, it is only to be expected that It all ends in maudlin sentimentality.