Wednesday, April 3, 2013

‘A Late Quartet’ (2012) directed by Yaron Zilberman

To devote yourself to mastering a single craft takes an insane amount of discipline, dedication and perseverance.  A Late Quartet shows us a tumultuous period in the life of the successful ‘Fugue String Quartet’, examining the physical and emotion toll of achieving musical perfection.  The quartet consists of four outstanding actors: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir.  All have their quirks and issues, and all bounce off one another in increasingly destructive ways.

The drama kicks off with Christopher Walken’s character, the cellist Peter discovering he has Parkinsons disease.  At this stage in his career, Walken tends to play up his public image of the detached, creepy weirdo.  This isn’t necessarily a criticism; he’s an actor with a near perfectly developed sense of comedic absurdity and probably the best thing about the recent Seven Psychopaths.  But here, refreshingly, he plays it straight, constructing an actual character rather than a set of eccentric tics. 

Christopher Walken as Peter
The other three, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Juliette (Catherine Keener) and Daniel (Mark Ivanir) are somewhat less sympathetic.  Their inter-personal and romantic relationships become soap operatically twisted up, with a resulting mountain of tears and bitter recriminations.  

Aside from Peter, Robert and Juliette's daughter Alexandra is the most likeable character in the film.  She acts like a believable teenager, forming intense emotional attachments at the drop of a hat, and impulsively spitting hurtful epithets at those around her.  Sure, she’s immature (although quite the opposite sometimes), but then you’d expect her to be.  The problem is that the rest of the adults in the film act in pretty much the same way. 

Imogen Poots as Alexandra
It’s interesting to consider the way these classical musicians present themselves.  They have achingly refined tastes in fashion, food and interior decoration.  Their trendy New York homes are models of minimalist taste.  They’re anxious to present themselves as ice-cool ultra-sophisticated figures, functioning in a way that an outsider could never hope to understand.  At various points in the film we view parts of a film-within-a-film documentary about the quartet, and these confidently friendly figures strike a sharp contrast to the miserable people we encounter in the film.

As relationships are formed and broken the quartet becomes increasingly acrimonious to each other.  On one hand it’s a nice way to show that even the most high-falutin’ of musicians are susceptible to the same base animal impulses as anyone else, but as interesting a point as this might be it still means we have to sit through their increasingly petty squabbling. As the resentment mounts it becomes difficult to stay sympathetic: these people have every possible luxury in life and behave like spoilt children.  Perhaps it’s just me, but in an economic climate where everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their jobs, having characters unhappily flaunting their wealth (at one point they bid $20,000 for a violin like it’s no big deal) might not be such a hot idea if you want us to stay on their side.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Robert
 These relationship difficulties might not seem like such dramatic small-fry if it wasn’t for the Walken character’s genuinely touching and dignified struggle with the onset of Parkinsons.  Unfortunately, and despite him easily having the best scenes in the film, he gets sidelined, with the focus shifting to the marriage troubles of Robert and Juliette, at which point the film becomes unpleasantly melodramatic. 

A Late Quartet wraps itself in the garb of high culture, apparently believing that merely appearing intelligent is good enough to mask a contrived plot about a tangle of love affairs.  It’s an illusion that nearly works until you begin thinking a little harder about exactly what parallels the film is hoping to draw between the occupations of its characters and their lives.  There are huge swathes of dialogue the film concerning musical theory and we sit on musical lessons in which, for all intents and purposes, we are the student.  If the movie had something interesting and unique to say about how to relate musical theory to relationships the whole affair might be worthwhile.  It doesn’t, what we’re presented with is a series of fairly straightforward homespun homilies.  The idea of an instrument going out of tune over time and needing to be readjusted can be compared to a person repeating a task?  People tend only to see the mistakes in their own work and ignore what’s fresh and interesting?  Yeah?  No shit.

Mark Ivanir as Daniel and Catherine Keener as Juliette
These large deficiencies are a pity, because the film is not without its charms.  It’s got an effective austere visual consistency; a snowy New York winter being a perfect backdrop for the action.  Appropriately enough for a film so concerned with music it has a great score by Angelo Badalamenti, and the performance sequences are spellbindingly constructed.  Ludwig van Beethoven deserves much of the credit for this though, his String Quartet No. 13, Opus 131 is absolutely beautiful, and played magnificently here.  Incidentally, at least to the untrained eye, the illusion that these actors are actually playing their instruments is near perfect.

As for the performances, these veteran actors are never less than believable.  Not many people do suppressed misery like Philip Seymour-Hoffman can, and pairing him with Catherine Keener, who can effortlessly suggest turmoil going on under a calm surface, is great casting.  The problem is that the material they’re given to work with renders them almost entirely unsympathetic.  They exist in a rarefied environment with bizarre priorities; this is a film where the absolute worst thing that could happen is a string quartet disbanding.  If that prospect genuinely makes you shudder with fear, then this might actually be the film for you.  

** / *****

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